Sunday, January 16, 2022

I Tried Kava And You Should, Too

Originally written for the Grand Geek Gathering and posted January 12th, 2022.  View here.

 I recently visited a kava bar.  A kava bar is sometimes referred to as a “nakamal,” which is a Vanuatu public house.  I wasn’t in Vanuatu, but Oakland, California, and I had never heard of kava before, which is what MeloMelo Kava Bar serves.

Having tried it, I’m going to make a prediction: Kava is going to be a big new craze in the coming decade.  I’m not the first; in 2018, Rolling Stone made the same prediction.  Alas, they could not have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic, which stalled the growth of a lot of new businesses, and in particular, restaurants and bars.

As a result of the pandemic, 2020 saw a big upswing in both anxiety and alcohol consumption, which in turn prompted a big upswing in “dry” bars and a counterculture of consuming non-alcoholic or alcohol-alternative substances.  Kava is the perfect fit for those who want to experience the fun of a bar without the side effects of alcohol, and for those who are looking for a natural remedy for anxiety.

If you’re seeking a new experience, look no further than kava.  I tried it, and you should too.


(Raw, unprepared kava root.)

So what is kava?

Tl;dr – Kava is an earthy drink that gives you a very gentle euphoric buzz.

Kava has been consumed by humans for millennia.  It’s the root of a plant called Piper methysticum, a relative of black pepper.  This plant is native to islands of the south Pacific.


Kava is a seedless plant that requires human cultivation to propagate.

It goes by many names: yaqona is Fiji, ava in Samoa, and ‘awa in Hawai’i.  There are many varieties.  Kava is the name used on Vanuatu, which is where some believe it originated.  There are over a hundred varieties, which can be roughly categorized into “noble” kava or “tudei” (two-day) kava.

The root of kava is crushed and mixed into a drink that tastes earthy and ashy.  The mild psychoactive ingredients found in kava are called kavalactones. There are 18 different kavalactones in kava, with six being the most important, and every variety has different concentrations and combinations of kavalactones.  In fact, the profile of the six kavalactones acts as a sort of “varietal fingerprint” for each plant.  (Melomelo kava bar, for example, gets its name from the “Melomelo” variety of kava, from Ambae Island.)


Powdered kava root.

Kavalactones are thought to act as GABA agonists and reduce the re-uptake of norepinephrine. (* See correction.)  As expected from a GABA agonist, this results in a calm, sleepy, mildly euphoric effect.

In short, it gets you high.

Kava is not regulated at any state or federal level, which is fascinating, considering it’s psychoactive.


Kava being strained into its drinkable form.

How does it taste and feel?

As I mentioned, Kava has an earthy, ashy, slightly “muddy” taste.  You can mix powdered kava into any drink (don’t do it with alcohol, please!) but traditional kava is simply made with water.  Served in a polished coconut shell called a bilo, it has a murky, brownish-grey color.

Upon swigging it, the first thing I noticed was that my mouth went pleasantly numb.  You know the feeling when you get Novocain at the dentist and, hours later, it’s wearing off with a gradual tingle?  That’s a bit how this felt.  It’s a pins-and-needles feeling that’s soft as opposed to prickly, and I found it enjoyable.


Kava in bilos.

On my first visit, I consumed three drinks, which left me feeling relaxed and friendly.  Everyone’s “tolerance” for kava is different, but as a general rule of thumb, it takes about 20 minutes to feel any effect and that effect lasts maybe two or three hours.  This was my experience.

I have heard it compared to weed, but I am allergic to cannabis (yes, really) so I can’t really tell you how they compare.  I do have a Xanax prescription and have also heard it compared to anti-anxiety medication, but I found it to be far, far milder than any anti-anxiety medication I’ve ever tried.  Certainly, it had the calming effect of anti-anxiety medication, but there was none of the clocked-out grogginess.  I felt perfectly alert and present, just calm.

Unlike alcohol, kava is not addictive and has no risk for overdosing.  After I tried it, I walked home from the kava bar and had a fantastic sleep.  The buzz is the mildest of buzzes; it’s the feeling of going to a really fun party and meeting really cool people you immediately click with.  (At kava bars, everyone “clicks” with everyone else.  Friendliest folks you’ll ever meet.)

It’s no wonder kava has such a long history of ceremonial and social importance.


Traditional kava ceremony in Fiji.

What’s the history?

Kava has an incredible culture that surrounds it.  Kava is the national drink of Fiji.  It’s so important to their culture that it’s featured on their one-cent coin.

In pre-colonial Fiji and Vanuatu, kava was consumed by male priests, chiefs, and elders; the ceremonies were often used to welcome visitors and open up trade between tribes.  Colonizers called the drink “grog,” a term you might have heard in old sailing books and assumed (incorrectly) that it referred to rum.  Nope.  Kava.

The kava-drinking ceremony (called yagona in Fiji) is now a major tourist attraction for the islands and open to more than just male elders.  Participants clap once before drinking the kava, exclaim “bula!”, and clap three times afterwards.  (Bula, pronounced “boolah,” translates literally to “life” and is used as both a greeting and as a way to express a wish for another’s health.  In other words, it’s “L’chaim!” or “Cheers!”)


Women Preparing Kava, by John La Large, 1891.

It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole when researching kava’s historical importance, and I ended up spending three or four hours reading about it before determining that I simply do not have the expertise required to tell you about kava’s history.

I will direct you instead to Kava: The Pacific Elixir, by Vincent Lebot, or to the Wikipedia page on Kava culture, or to the Kalm with Kava culture page, all of which delve into some of the ways kava shaped, influenced, and impacted various Oceanic cultures.

Learning about something like this made me feel humbled by just how little I knew about Fiji and Vanuatu.  For whatever reason, kava hasn’t yet caught on in Western culture, although it’s getting there, and I did find this ad for it in a 1915 Sears catalogue.

According to Kalm with Kava, there are currently just under 200 kava bars in the United States, and that number is growing.  (It’s nearly doubled since 2018.)

Is Kava safe?  

When people hear the word “psychoactive” they tend to immediately grow concerned (or excited, depending on who it is).  Kava is a suspected GABA agonist, just like alcohol, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines. (* See correction.)

But unlike most drugs, kava is, by all accounts, one of the safest psychoactive things you could possibly consume.

According to a statement by the World Health Organization, ““Kava has had at least a 1500-year history of relatively safe use, with liver side effects never having arisen in the ethnopharmacological data. Clinical trials of kava have not revealed hepatotoxicty as a problem. This has been confirmed by further studies evaluating the toxicology of kava drink. Based on available scientific information it can be inferred that kava as a traditional beverage is safe for human consumption.”


These 6 kavalactones make up 95% of the psychoactive properties of kava, but every variety has a different ratio.

It’s recommended not to combine alcohol and kava, or kava and other psychoactive drugs, because the effects can compound and kavalactones are highly interactive with other drugs.  You definitely shouldn’t drive on it due to the sedative effect.

It’s worth noting that safety applies, specifically, to the “noble” strains of kava.  The tudei kava is more potent, used mostly for ceremonial purposes (as opposed to recreation), and is not exported or legally sold.  If you are getting kava from a kava bar, it’s the safer “noble” strain.  When buying kava, always make sure you know what you’re getting; some processed herbal remedies have additives that are not safe.  (Note that this is true of any drug, herb, vitamin, or supplement; know your source.)


It is rare to see children participate in kava ceremonies, though not unheard of. Generally kava is not recommended for children.

Kava has almost no calories, no hang-over, and no risk of overdose; as mentioned before, it is also not considered addictive.  From my own experience I can say there were zero side effects; when the “high” wears off, there is no residual grogginess or brain fog, as there often is with pharmaceutical anti-anxiety medications.

One mild side effect associated with long-term, heavy kava consumption is a skin condition known as “kava dermopathy” (kani kani in Fiji).  The skin gets dry, scaly, and flaky, especially on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.  This condition is reversible and, at the kava bar, I met two avid kava consumers who had experienced it and reduced their kava use for a few weeks, reversing it with no ill or lasting effects.  This is not something you need to worry about if you plan to try kava once, or even if you consume it a few times a week.

Where can I try Kava?

I personally recommend that, if you’re anywhere near a kava bar, you go there first.  While you can buy powdered kava on Amazon (as well as pills and tinctures), the experience of drinking it out of a bilo among a group of friendly people, clapping, and shouting “bula!” definitely adds to the enjoyment.  And having it prepared properly by people who can answer your questions about it is also a major benefit.

Kava has been used and is recommended as an alternative aid for anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills, and as a decided high-strung guy myself, kava worked wonders for me.  I was surprised by its effectiveness and delighted to have found it.

This just goes to show the importance of trying new things and learning about new cultures.  If you’re looking for one to try, I humbly recommend kava, whose history of human consumption and effects on the human body make it a unique avenue to explore.




* Correction (January 15th, 2022):

GABA agonist is one proposed method by which Kavalactones, or Kavain, works, but recent evidence shows that Kavain has no affinity for the GABA receptor.  Rather, it interacts with subunits of the GABA A receptor, which would classify it as a “General Positive Allosteric Modulator,” not a GABA agonist.  In recent experiments, the application of a strong benzo antagonist did not affect the effects of kava, implying further that the psychoactive elements of kava do not work on the benzodiazepine allosteric site, and it is not in the same GABA agonist class of drugs as benzos.


  • Chua, Han Chow, Emilie T. H. Christensen, Kirsten Hoestgaard-Jensen, Leonny Y. Hartiadi, Iqbal Ramzan, Anders A. Jensen, Nathan L. Absalom, and Mary Chebib. 2016. “Kavain, the Major Constituent of the Anxiolytic Kava Extract, Potentiates GABAA Receptors: Functional Characteristics and Molecular Mechanism.” PloS One 11 (6): e0157700.
  • Rowe, A., R. Narlawar, P. W. Groundwater, and I. Ramzan. 2011. “Kavalactone Pharmacophores for Major Cellular Drug Targets.” Mini Reviews in Medicinal Chemistry 11 (1): 79–83.

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