Kava is a depressant drug, which means it slows down the messages travelling between the brain and the body. Kava is made from the root or stump of the kava (Piper methysticum) shrub.1
Kava comes in different forms including:
Kava kava, kawa, waka, lewena, yaqona, grog (Fiji), sakau (Pohnpei), 'awa (Hawaii), 'ava (Samoa) and wati (New Guinea).3
How is it used?
Traditionally, Pacific Islanders crushed, chewed and ground the root and stump of the shrub, then soaked it in cold water to produce a drink for ceremonies and cultural practices. These rituals were said to strengthen ties among groups, reaffirm status and help people communicate with spirits.1
Many Pacific Islanders who have settled in Australia have continued drinking kava or using kava extracts.5
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
Kava was introduced to the communities in the north of Australia in the 1980s as a substitute for alcohol, to reduce alcohol-related harms in the community. The kava drink is often used for sedative, hypnotic and muscle-relaxant effects, in much the same way that alcohol is used.1
Kava extract is used in some herbal preparations. They are sold as over-the-counter tablets and preparations to be used in the treatment of insomnia, stress and anxiety.4
There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk. Even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It's important to be careful when taking any type of drug.
Kava affects everyone differently, based on:
Regular use of large amounts of kava may eventually cause:
Manufactured products such as herbal remedies that contain kava extract have been linked to irreversible liver damage. Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration recommends that anyone at risk of liver damage or who has an existing liver condition should avoid taking preparations containing kava.7
Using kava with other drugs
The effects of taking kava with other drugs – including over-the-counter or prescribed medications – can be unpredictable and dangerous, and could cause:
Kava + alcohol: increased drowsiness, impaired reflexes and risk of liver damage.
There is no evidence that people who regularly use kava become dependent on the drug, so if they stop taking it withdrawal symptoms are unlikely to be experienced. However, if any health problems do emerge medical advice should be attained.6
Reducing the risks
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1. Urquhart, B., & Thomson, N. (2009). Review of the misuse of kava among Indigenous Australians. Australian Indigenous Health Bulletin, 9(3), 1-14.
2. University of Maryland Medical Center. (2011). Kava kava.
3. Medline Plus. (2014). Kava.
4. Currie, B., & Clough, A. (2003). Kava hepatotoxicity with Western herbal products: does it occur with traditional kava use? Medical Journal of Australia,178 (9), 421-422.Retrieved from 178 (9): 421-422.
5. Lee, K., Freeburn, B., Ella, S., Miller, W., Perry, J., & Conigrave, K. (2012). Handbook for Aboriginal Alcohol and Drug Work.