Kava is a popular supplement that is sold on the shelves of many retail stores in the United States. Although it is not a controlled substance, it is commonly abused for its psychoactive effects. In high doses, kava can produce feelings of relaxation, sedation, and anxiety relief. Since it is sold legally in the U.S., there are many arguments over whether or not you can get addicted to kava.
Ultimately, any substance a person uses that alters their mood, mind, or perception can be addictive. While kava may not be as addictive as stronger opioids like oxycodone, morphine, or heroin, it is possible to get addicted to it.
What is Kava?
Kava is an herbal supplement that comes from the root of a plant known as Piper methysticum. This plant is native to the Western Pacific Islands and the word “kava” comes from a Polynesian term that means “intoxicating pepper.” Kava has been widely used by Pacific islanders for decades both as a medical treatment and as a substance that is used in religious ceremonies.
The herb is most commonly consumed in the form of a tea-like beverage that, although non-alcoholic, does produce psychoactive effects. People who consume kava may feel euphoria, sedation, and relaxation. As such, many people use it as a way to manage conditions like stress, insomnia, chronic pain, and anxiety.
In recent years, experts have studied kava as a possible alternative to benzodiazepine medications, however, research is limited around the substance. Researchers have also looked questioned whether or not kava could help treat addiction by reducing drug and alcohol cravings. Since little is known about kava’s effects and risk potential, the FDA released an advisory report in 2002 to notify consumers that kava may cause liver damage.
Why Do People Abuse Kava?
Kava affects the brain and the central nervous system acting as a depressant that reduces anxiety and relaxes muscles. When used traditionally, people would chew kava roots or make the root into a pulp that they would drink. Today, kava is available in several different forms. You may find kava in a tincture or liquid extract (kava concentrate), added to a pre-made or flavored liquid (micronized kava), brewed into a tea (ground kava root), or formulated into capsules.
Kava has an earthy taste that many people compare to dirt. Kavalactones, the active ingredient in kava, may have an analgesic effect, which is why people who drink kava may experience numbness in their lips or tongue. When people want to experience maximum effects from the substance, they typically consume it on an empty stomach.
Since kava reduces anxiety, many people abuse kava for its anti-anxiety properties. The substance may also appear to improve mood, appetite, and sleep quality. However, any mood and mind-altering substance can be addictive, so it is possible to get addicted to kava.
Side Effects of Kava Abuse and Addiction
Kava produces calming effects similar to those of benzodiazepines and alcohol without causing significantly impaired judgment. While kava is commonly abused due to the health benefits it may produce, it can also cause several harmful side effects. Common side effects of Kava abuse include:
- Nausea and diarrhea
- Impaired coordination
- Blurred vision
People who are addicted to kava may mix the substance with alcohol or other central nervous system depressants in order to increase the effects of the substance. Others will take higher doses of kava than recommended to try and feel the effects faster. Whether someone is taking too much kava or mixing it with other drugs, doing so increases the risk of addiction and harmful side effects.
Signs that Someone is Addicted to Kava
While many believe that kava is non-addictive, it can lead to the development of tolerance and thus be habit-forming. The substance can also create a euphoric high that allows users to change their state of mind without being overly impaired, so users can be high and still function. As a result, it’s easy for people to use kava without realizing they have become addicted to it.
Common signs of kava addiction are:
- Preoccupation with thoughts of using kava
- Developing a tolerance where you need to use more of the substance to feel the same effects
- Feeling intense urges or cravings for kava
- Wanting to stop or even attempting to stop using kava but being unable to do so
- Spending excessive time and money on kava
- Continuing to use kava despite worsening health or social consequences
- Isolating from friends and family or lying about kava use
- Mixing kava with other substances like alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines, or stimulants
People who are addicted to kava may also experience mild withdrawal symptoms if they stop using the substance suddenly. These symptoms include anxiety, nausea, fatigue, headache, and cramping.
The Dangers of Kava Abuse
Although Kava is marketed as a safe and natural herbal supplement, experts have many safety concerns about the substance – particularly in regard to the way kava affects the liver. In fact, kava is banned in Canada and Europe due to these concerns. In 2002, the FDA explained that “Kava-containing products have been associated with liver-related injuries – including hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver failure – in over 25 reports of adverse events in other countries.” Some of these patients even required liver transplants.
While a single dose of kava is probably safe, long-term abuse is extremely dangerous. In addition to the risk of addiction, long-term kava use can lead to liver damage, stomach irritation, kidney problems, hallucinations, and even shortness of breath.
Find Help for Kava Addiction Today
Even though kava is sold legally in the United States, there is still the potential for users to abuse the substance and become addicted to it. If you or someone you know is addicted to kava, we can help. Contact us today to learn about our addiction treatment programs and how we can help you or your loved one.
Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.