Healthy Beginnings

What’s cool about kava? A look at the all-natural, anti-anxiety beverage

The most popular way to consume kava is by drinking it, by steeping fresh or ground and dried powder. Photo: Shutterstock

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kava could interact with other medications or health conditions, so please consult a doctor before consuming the plant.

For centuries, Pacific Islanders have used kava — a plant species in the pepper family — to brew a drink lauded for its calming effect. It’s been used to treat everything from anxiety to migraines, and in some cultures, the drink is consumed during religious and cultural ceremonies like weddings and funerals.

Kava has been growing in popularity across the United States. Reno-based Sol Kava is one of roughly 100 kava bars in the country, according to kava website hub “Kalm With Kava,” and the only establishment of its kind in Northern Nevada.

“I first tried kava on the big island of Hawaii. It was very relaxing, and I was introduced to the whole spiritual experience that first time. It really just moved me,” said entrepreneur and holistic health advocate Kristen Jaskulski, who opened Sol Kava in April 2017. “I thought it would be a really great addition to our community. Reno is a town that’s been encouraging partying for a long time, so opening a kava bar was a nice place that encouraged sober conversation and enlightenment.”

Jaskulski recently sold the business, which is still in operation at downtown Reno’s West Street Market, and now sells a line of kava, sourced from Fiji, at Great Basin Community Food Co-op. Her kava is also served on tea night at The Studio in Reno.

“It’s an anti-anxiety tool,” explained Jaskulski. “It really helps with stress, anxiety, muscle tension, and muscle soreness.”

Among other research, a 2013 study published in the “Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology” found that kava significantly reduced symptoms in participants diagnosed with general anxiety disorder.

Kavalactones are the active ingredients in kava, and there are six major ones, according to leading kava expert Dr. Vincent Lebot, who’s based in Vanuatu, a Pacific Island nation.

Lebot says the kavalactone kavain — mostly concentrated in the root of the plant — is responsible for feelings of relaxation. The mild feelings of euphoria come from the kavalactone desmethoxyyangonin, which boosts dopamine levels.

Kava can be consumed in tablets or extracts, but the most popular way is drinking kava, either by steeping fresh or ground and dried kava powder. With an earthy flavor, kava is described by many as an acquired taste.

“It’s really delicious if you put it in orange juice or some sort of chocolately beverage,” said Jaskulski. “The recommended serving is about five (coconut) shells. You want to give yourself enough time to feel the relaxation effects, so have a couple of shells and chill and enjoy your company.”

But kava’s popularity has come with its fair share of controversy.

A 2002 German study connected kava to liver damage, resulting in a now-reversed regulatory ban in the country. It prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to advise consumers that kava might lead to liver damage.

While some studies have indicated an association between heavy kava consumption and higher levels of a liver enzyme that suggests the liver’s bile could be affected, another study of kavalactones’ effects on rats found no signs of liver toxicity even when the subjects were exposed to high dosages.

However, over consumption can lead to a loss of balance, double vision and skin drying, but experts note that just like with coffee or alcohol, it’s about consuming in moderation.

Due to the plant’s growing popularity around the world, the governments of Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu have partnered with the Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access program to develop standards for the industry. The standards will focus on food safety, production methods and testing methods.

“It’s an alternative when you’re looking for a pain reliever, a stress reliever, or you want a glass of wine at the end of the day, if you try kava instead you might find a more holistic healthful approach to your wellness,” added Jaskulski.

Claire Cudahy is a special assignments reporter for the Sierra Nevada Media Group, which publishes Healthy Beginnings. Email her at ccudahy@swiftcom.com with feedback.