Kava: Inside the All-Natural High That's Sweeping America

For centuries, this South Pacific root has been brewed into a calming tea – and now U.S. shops are offering it up as an alternative to drugs

From Texas to Brooklyn, many Americans are turning to kava to deal with anxiety and stress. Credit: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Tracy and Scott Pingel just had a baby. Life was tough enough in the late 2000s, but add a newborn to the mix, and the stress levels went through the roof. So the couple decided to search for an all-natural remedy to relieve the anxiety they were feeling.

While researching their options, the Pingels came across kava, a plant found throughout the Pacific islands that has been used as medicine and a ceremonial herb for centuries. They were drawn to kava's calming properties and found the plant to be effective at relieving tension when it's brewed into a tea. That was more than eight years ago, and the couple still drinks kava pretty regularly.

"It shuts down what I like to call that 'mental talking in your head,'" says Tracy, who owns SquareRüt Kava Bar in Austin, Texas, with her husband.

Although common in the South Pacific, consuming kava has only begun to surge in popularity in the United States. SquareRüt is one of nearly 100 kava bars that have popped up across the country, according to an interactive map produced by Kalm With Kava, a kava product and information website. As drinking kava grows in popularity, so does the number of businesses catering to this new medicinal tea niche. Though it's a country-wide trend, only a handful of states – California, New York and Florida among them – are home to one or more kava bars.

But what exactly is kava, and how does it affect your body? Here is everything you need to know.

What is kava?
Kava (Latin name Piper Methysticum) is a non-addictive medicinal South Pacific plant species belonging to the pepper family. The plant – also known as asava pepper or intoxicating pepper – can grow to an average height of six feet, with heart-shaped leaves that stretch 10 inches wide. 

For centuries, Pacific Islanders have used kava as a medicinal plant because of its sedative, anesthetic, euphoriant, and psychotropic properties. (In other words: It can calm you down and make you feel good.) The herb has been used to treat everything from migraines and insomnia to infections and rheumatism. In some cultures, kava is used for religious and cultural traditions, including weddings, political events, funerals and royal events.

What is kava used for?
Studies have shown that the properties in kava can ease anxiety, relieve stress, and relax muscle and nervous tension, as well as combat insomnia and improve sleep problems. That's why many people who consume kava use it a natural alternative to anti-anxiety medication. "You have that 'aha' moment," Pingel tells Rolling Stone. "You just feel better."

Although kava's anti-anxiety benefits are well known, research published five years ago supports its potential use in a clinical therapy setting. Specifically, a 2013 world-first clinical study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology found that kava had significantly reduced symptoms in people diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. 

What does kava do to a person?
Kavalactones, the active ingredients in kava, are sticky, insoluble substances. It passes through the bloodstream when absorbed, causing the plant to act as a muscle relaxant, according to leading kava expert Dr. Vincent Lebot, who's based in Vanuatu, a Pacific Island nation in the South Pacific Ocean. There are six major kavalactones found in kava, with "the most interesting one" being kavain, he says, concentrated mostly in roots of the plant, he says. That's the one responsible for the feeling of relaxation.

But kavalactones don't affect or work in the brain directly, so although it has sedative-like properties, it's not an actual sedative. The mild euphoric feeling comes from desmethoxyyangonin, another of the major kavalactones that boosts dopamine levels. "This is why, when you drink kava, there is no alteration of your perception of the reality," Lebot tells Rolling Stone. "It doesn't affect directly the central nervous system."

But are there any side effects?
Not generally. Drinking kava in moderation doesn't produce any discernible side effects, Lebot tells Rolling Stone. "The beverage can be very diluted and hardly any effect will be produced," he tells Rolling Stone, "or it can be very strong, and it is recommended to stay home and not drive."

Consume too much of it, though, and kava may cause a loss of balance, double vision, sleepiness and skin drying –known as kava dermostatis – over the long-term. But, Lebot stresses, drinking kava is no different than drinking coffee. "If you abuse coffee, you might have side effects [too]," he says.

How do you consume kava?
The best way to consume kava is by drinking it, Lebot says. The traditional beverage is made by steeping kava, either fresh or as ground into a dried powder, into cold water in order to extract its active components. The drink then has to be shaken or stirred before consumed (kava is an unstable emulsion, which means the molecules don't dissolve in a water and would quickly separate, like oil and vinegar in a vinaigrette).

Kava is a beverage, like coffee or tea, and though other forms of it exist, it should be consumed as a drink, Lebot says. Anything else – extracts, pills, capsules, alcoholic solutions, you name it – should not be considered kava, he warns. "If you put caffeine in a pill, you cannot call it coffee, just like dried raisins in a capsules are not wine," Lebot says.

How does kava taste?
As Pingel puts it: "It's root and water." Kava is an acquired taste, she says, and isn't something that's naturally delicious. "But I love it so much now that I actually crave the taste of kava," she adds.

Fresh kava is another story. Very fresh, green kava can taste flavorful and spicy, like licorice, Lebot says, but most people outside of the western Pacific don't have access to the fresh crop. So what consumers in the United States and other regions get is the earthy taste Pingel describes.

Still, that's not why people drink kava. "Kava is not consumed for its taste, but for its effects," Lebot tells Rolling Stone. "So drinkers don't sip the beverage, they absorb it in one shot."

So is it legal in the United States?
Yes. Kava is legal in the United States for personal use as a dietary supplement. In fact, kava is legal in most countries, and is often regulated as a food or dietary supplement (Poland, though, is the only country to outright ban the plant.)

Contested research has caused some regions to pass laws restricting kava's use and distribution, though. A 2002 German study linked kava to liver damage, leading to a now-reversed regulatory ban in Germany. The research also prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue a consumer advisory that year for supplements containing kava. Those findings, however, have been largely disputed since.

One thing's for sure, though: More research on kava is needed.