Kava (Piper methysticum) is a shrub belonging to the pepper family, Piperaceae. The root or stump of the shrub contains kavalactones, which have sedative and muscle-relaxant effects.
Kava is also known as "kava kava", kawa (Fiji), waka (Fiji), lewena (Fiji), yaqona (Fiji), grog (Fiji), sakau (Pohnpei), 'awa (Hawaii), 'ava (Samoa) and wati (New Guinea).
What does it look like?
Kava can be in the form of a brown powder, in capsules, extracts, drops or mixed as a brownish-coloured drink.
How and why is it used?
Kava drinking in the 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 use in ceremonies and other cultural practices. Kava-drinking rituals helped to strengthen ties among groups, to reaffirm status and rank in the community, and to communicate with the spirits.
Many Pacific Islanders who have settled in Australia continue their cultural practice of drinking kava, and in recent decades other Australians have taken up kava drinking, or using products containing kava extracts.
Kava drinking in Australia
In the 1980s, kava was introduced to Australian Indigenous communities in the north of Australia. It was thought that substituting alcohol with kava would reduce alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harms.
These days, kava drinking is not limited to ceremonies and traditional use. It is often used more heavily and for its sedative, hypnotic and muscle-relaxant effects, in much the same way that alcohol is used.
Kava extract is used in some herbal preparations. These manufactured tablets and preparations are sold as over-the-counter medicines to treat insomnia and to relieve stress and anxiety.
The effects of any drug (including kava) vary from person to person. How kava affects a person depends on many things including their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to taking it. The effects of kava, as with any drug, also depend on the amount taken.
There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug.
Kava acts as a sedative and muscle relaxant. Drinking it in moderate amounts can make a person feel happy, sleepy and relaxed. It can also numb the mouth and throat and reduce the person's appetite.
Drinking large amounts of kava may result in sleepiness, nausea and loss of muscle control.
Excessive use of kava has been associated with a number of health-related problems. Some of the unpleasant side effects include:
Psychological effects of kava
Excessive use of kava has been associated with mood swings and a general state of apathy. Psychological problems such as depression and schizophrenia may be complicated by excessive use of kava.
Other effects of kava use
Social effects of kava
Excessive use of kava can lead to a range of social problems that can have an impact on a person's family, friends, work, school and financial situation.
Family and relationship problems may arise when a person spends large amounts of time in kava drinking sessions and less time with their family. This problem can be made worse if the person then comes home and sleeps instead of spending time with, and looking after, their family.
Some people spend large amounts of money buying kava, which can result in financial difficulties and increased pressure on the family.
The general state of apathy that may occur from excessive kava use can result in problems with work or school.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
The sedative effects of kava can affect the ability to drive safely.
Kava and the workplace
The sedative effects of kava can result in unsafe working conditions, especially if driving taxis or operating heavy machinery. People who consume large amounts of kava may also take more sick days because they are suffering from some of the health problems associated with excessive kava use.
Preventing and reducing harms
Manufactured products containing kava extract have been linked to irreversible liver damage. Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) recommends that anyone at risk of liver damage or who has an existing liver condition should avoid taking preparations containing kava.
If you are taking any preparation containing kava, contact your health practitioner if you experience any unexplained symptoms or side effects, including:
There is no evidence that people who regularly drink large doses of kava become dependent, so there doesn't seem to be a risk of withdrawal if a person suddenly stops taking kava. However, medical supervision is recommended.
What to do if you are concerned about someone’s kava use
If you are concerned about someone’s drug use, there is help available. Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.
What to do in a crisis
Always call triple zero (000) if a drug overdose is known or suspected—and remember that paramedics are not obliged to involve the police.
Kava and the law
Please note: This information does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in this way. The information is correct at the time of publication. For information specific to your situation contact a legal aid service in your state or territory.
The import, advertising and sale of kava in Australia are strictly controlled. Kava is listed as a controlled substance under the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations Act.
As of 26 June 2007 commercial importations of kava are no longer allowed, except for medical or scientific purposes.
Passengers coming into Australia, who are over the age of 18 years, are allowed to bring 2 kg of kava without a license or permit, provided it is in their accompanied baggage.
National drug policy
Australia's national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.