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Kava facts

What is kava?

Effects of kava

Withdrawal

Further information 

 

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What is kava? 

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:

  • Brownish-coloured drink
  • Brown powder
  • Capsules
  • Extracts
  • Drops2

Other names 

Kava kava, kawa, waka, lewena, yaqona, grog (Fiji), sakau (Pohnpei), 'awa (Hawaii), 'ava (Samoa) and wati (New Guinea).3

How is it used? 

Pacific Islands

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

Herbal preparations 

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

Effects of kava

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:

  • Size, weight and health
  • Whether the person is used to taking it
  • Whether other drugs are taken around the same time
  • The amount taken
  • The strength of the drug 


The following effects may be experienced:

  • Feeling happy and relaxed
  • Mild sleepiness
  • Numb mouth and throat
  • Reduced or loss of appetite6  


If a large amount of kava is taken the following effects may also be experienced:

  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Loss of muscle control
  • Mild fever
  • Pupil dilation and red eyes6

Long-term effects

Regular use of large amounts of kava may eventually cause:

  • Mood swings
  • Apathy
  • Dry, scaly skin
  • Malnutrition and severe weight loss
  • Getting infections more easily
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pains
  • Needing to use more to get the same effect
  • Financial, work and social problems6


People with a family history of mental illness or who are experiencing mental health problems such as depression and schizophrenia, may find excessive use of kava makes the symptoms of these conditions more severe.6

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.

Kava + benzodiazepines: sedation.3

Withdrawal

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

Further information 

Statistics

Reducing the risks

Resources

 

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References

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.

6. Territory Health Services, Public Health Strategy Unit. (2005). The Public Health Bush Book (3rd ed.). Darwin: Territory Health Services.


Last updated: 19 May 2016

Information you heard is intended as a general guide only. This audio is copyrighted by the Australian Drug Foundation. Visit www.DrugInfo.ADF.org.au for more