Kava, Piper methysticum

Kava is a powerful herb that has been used for hundreds of years. It has gained much attention in past years because of its ability to increase dopamine, relieve pain, and help with anxiety and depression. Let's dive in a little deeper and find out why we should be adding kava to our herb cabinets. 


Common Name: Kava, Kava kava

Latin Name: Piper mythsyticum

Family: Piperaceae

Parts Used: Roots only

Location: Pacific Islands (Possible to grow in Florida) 

Growing/Harvesting: Kava Kava is incapable of self-reproduction; its propagation is vegetative and entirely due to human effort.  A perennial that grows best in cool moist areas(1000 ft above sea level) in rich loose soil Kava Kava rarely produces seeds, and all propagation must be done from cuttings of the rootstock.  Best harvested in the Rain.


For over 3000 years kava has been used in lots of ways and for different reasons such as funerals, weddings or village gatherings. Traditionally kava root was chewed, some cultures claim by female virgins while some regions say children did the chewing-so whoever did the chewing- it  was then spat out into a cloth and made into tea from the chewed roots.

Nowadays kava root is pounded or ground by hand into a pulp and then soaked in water to make tea or even more commonly a powder is used. 

To this day, kava is given to the presiding Tongan king as an offering. The legend is not just an origin story; it illustrates the four Tongan virtues of Fakaapaapa (respect), Lototo (Humility) Mamahi 'I me 'a (commitment), and Tauhi' vaha' a (keeping good relations).

Before drinking Fijians clap three times, and say, “Bula” which means life, or to live, and is also used as a greeting and salutation. After drinking the entire shell, kava drinkers clap twice more. Clapping is believed to scare off any evil spirits.


From James Duke’s database he lists that there are a total of 25 constituents and 52 botanical activities listed. Kavalactones are the primary active ingredient and are the constituent that is shown to be effective in treating anxiety and depression. 

Kavalactones also may protect the brain against damage due to ischemia, a condition in which there is not enough oxygen-rich blood supplied to the brain.  The effectiveness of the kavalactones is said to be due to their ability to limit the area affected by necrosis as a result of the reduction of the blood supply.

Another chemical constituent of Kava Kava is Kawain. According to James Duke’s website, Kawain has quite a long list of medicinal actions, including anesthetic, anti-convulsant, anti-dote, anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, antispasmodic, fungicide, myorelaxant, sedative, and tranquilizer.  Piper methysticum is listed as the plant species with the highest amount of Kawain in it.

Piper methysticum is also listed as being the plant species with the highest amount of methysticin in it.  This is also an anesthetic, anti-convulsant, anti-dote, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and myorelaxant.  In addition, it is also neuroprotective.  Yangonin, which is also highest in piper methysticum, is also an anesthetic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic and myorelaxant.  In addition, yangonin is also antibacterial.  There seems to be a lot more going on inside of Kava Kava than just relaxant activities.

Energetics: Warming (member of the pepper family)

Taste: Kava in Tonga translates as ‘Bitter’. It is an earthy acquired taste. You can feel tingling and heat in cheeks and fingertips.

Actions & Affinities

Stress/Anxiety: Kava is a strong nervine that is known to produce pleasant sensations and have a calming relaxing effect on the nervous system.  It is used most commonly in the treatment of anxiety and depression. Studies have found it to improve mood, cognitive function and increase coping ability.  It has also been studied with great success as a treatment of GAD (generalized anxiety disorder)

It does this by putting the body in a space of limbic safety that over time can help you create new experiences outside of trauma or anxiety. It has a strong affinity to help strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system, and increase dopamine without the crash and burn. 

Sleep/Insomnia:  Kavalactones appear to act primarily on the limbic system part of the brain that affects all other brain activities and is the principal seat of emotions.  Kavalactones promote sleep by altering the way in which the limbic system modulates emotional processes. It also is known to increase GABA receptors that can help us relax into a rest and digest mode.

Pain/Analgesic: Kava has long been used as a pain reliever it is known to help relax the musculoskeletal system because of the constituents dihydrokavain and dihydromethysticin.  These constituents have analgesic effectiveness comparable to that of aspirin.  It can help relax tired sore muscles, and fibromyalgia, relieve a sore throat, relax muscle spasms, and menstrual cramps, and is especially indicated for pain from urinary tract inflammation such as interstitial cystitis. Although Kava Kava has been described as a narcotic, it is non-addictive.

Social / Emotionally: “You cannot hate with Kava in you”-Tom Harrison 

Historic evidence shows that good relationships can be built with the aid of kava.  It gives a heightened sense of well-being and mental clarity that can help promote a sense of peace and happiness in social situations where we may otherwise feel uncomfortable. It has been said that because it has been known to numb the tongue it may also make us better listeners by helping us step away from the reactive state and simply listening and opening up empathy and understanding from another's view. 

Contraindications:  Potential risk of rare but severe liver injury with high doses and long-term use. Not intended for use in children, pregnant or breastfeeding women. Excessive use may cause drowsiness.  This is best taken on an empty stomach or with light food not with heavy meals.

I hope you get a chance to share a cup of kava tea with friends today!




*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to treat, diagnose or cure any disease.