Longread alert! This is an in-depth review of kava. We not only give you kava reviews for the best kava powder, best kava extract, best micronized kava, and more, but we go deep into the benefits of kava, how it works, what it feels like to use it, and how to choose the best kava for you. If you want to skip all that and go straight to the reviews, you can find our recommendations for the best kava supplements at the bottom of this article.
Kava bars have become something of a trendy thing in the last few years. Or they had, until the COVID-19 pandemic. Now though, you’re probably more inclined to brew some up at home.
In this article we’ll explain what kava is, why you should consider drinking it instead of a good old-fashioned margarita, and how to pick the best kava products and get the most possible enjoyment out of them. Then we’ll give you our reviews for the best instant kava, best micronized kava, best kava powder, best kava supplement, and more.
What Is Kava?
Kava–scientific name piper methysticum, meaning “intoxicating pepper”–is an herb native to the Pacific islands. The word kava comes from a Tongan word meaning bitter; kava is also known by other names including ‘ava, ‘awa, kava kava, or yaqona.
Kava is known for its sedating effects, as well as euphoric and analgesic properties. Traditionally in many Pacific island cultures kava is consumed as a beverage made from the ground root of the kava plant, or a mixture of the root and bark. Sometimes kava is also chewed.
Traditionally, in many of these cultures kava occupies a similar role to alcohol in most societies–as the “social beverage” that people drink to loosen up and socialize, as well as for ceremonial uses such as toasting or celebration. It is also used on some islands for shamanistic purposes, or as a component in traditional medicine. Australian aboriginals also mix it with alcohol.
The active ingredient in kava is a class of chemical called kavalactones. Raw kava root contains 3-20% kavalactones by weight, depending on the varietal. However, kava extracts (what consumers usually buy) are more concentrated, and contain 30-70% kavalactones.
What Are The Effects Of Kava?
Kava’s known effects fall into three main categories: sedative, euphoric, and analgesic.
Multiple studies, not to mention widespread anecdotal experience, leave no doubt that kava has sedative and anxiolytic properties. These effects are moderately powerful–most people will find them to be quite noticeable, and kava is sedating enough that it needs to be avoided before driving or operating heavy machinery, much the same as alcohol.
Kava also moderately elevates mood and subjective well-being. This effect can be as powerful as the anxiolytic effect, but is somewhat less consistent. It appears to be secondary to the anxiolytic effect, meaning it makes you feel happier via making you feel less anxious. Thus, the more anxious you are, the more kava is likely to elevate your mood.
Analgesic effects are a bit more complicated. The topical analgesic effects of kava are not in doubt–anyone who has ever tried it can attest that it makes your mouth go numb.
Systemic analgesic effects–as in, whether ingesting kava will make pinching your arm hurt less–are a different story. So far, they haven’t been studies in humans. In rats and mice, kava does appear to exert some systemic analgesic effect, but the mechanism of action is unclear. There’s no particular reason just yet to recommend kava for this purpose.
There is also early evidence that kava decreases stress, blood pressure and symptoms of depression, as well as improving sleep quality. All of these effects so far appear to be minor and secondary to kava’s anti-anxiety properties.
How Long For Kava To Kick In? And How Long Does Kava Last?
The duration and half-life of kava is still somewhat unclear. One study found that effects typically peaked 1-2 hours after ingestion, with a distribution half-life of 50 minutes and an elimination half-life of 9 hours. Anecdotally, people usually feel the euphoric and anxiolytic effects of kava for 2-3 hours, with higher doses causing a sedation effect that can last longer.
Mixing kava with alcohol causes a synergistic drunkenness effect. The danger of liver damage from kava is minimal, but mixing with alcohol raises the toxicity. Kava can also cause hangovers. All of this depends on the variety–more on that shortly.
Kava should not be mixed with prescription anxiolytic or antidepressant drugs without consulting a doctor first.
How To Choose A Good Kava Product
The effective dose of kavalactones ranges from 70-250 mg, with the higher end of that range usually being reserved for sleep induction. Lower doses can be taken several times a day.
The first thing to look for in a kava product is the total amount of kavalactones it contains. You’ll want 70-150 mg per dose for socializing or anxiolytic purposes, or 200-250 for sedation and sleep improvement. Some supplements will list kavalactones in mg; others will list them as a percentage by weight, and you’ll have to do the math to figure out the number of milligrams per serving.
If the kavalactone content isn’t listed, you probably shouldn’t buy a product. If you do though, for safety’s sake you need to assume a high kavalactone content–20% for whole root or 70% for an extract–even though the opposite is probably the case.
Second, you’ll want to look at which variety of kava is used. There are two main strains of kava–noble and tudei. Each strain has a different mix of kavalactones. Noble kava is shorter-lasting, has fewer side effects, and tends to be mildly euphoric and anxiolytic and thus ideal for socializing. Tudei kava is more sedating and longer-lasting, and has harsher side effects including nausea and hangovers.
Noble kava has a safer toxicity profile, both chronic and acute, and it’s the variety that is used in almost all human studies. That in turn makes it safer because it’s better-studied. We recommend always choosing noble over tudei kava.
Experienced kava users will often describe a kava as “heady, heavy or balanced.” Heady kava causes more energetic and euphoric feelings, while heavy kava causes more sedation, with balanced being a mix of both. For the most part this corresponds to variety; noble kava tends to be heady, tudei will feel heavy, and a blend will probably feel heavy or balanced. Of course, a higher dosage will also feel more “heavy.”
Again, given the toxicity of tudei kava, we still recommend higher-dosed noble kava over lower-dosed tudei kava for sleep induction.
Speaking of toxins, look for powders or extracts that are made or extracted with water, rather than solvents such as ethanol. Any solvent used should be removed afterward, of course, but traces can remain. In small amounts, they’re not so much a real danger, but will contribute to hangovers.
Finally, look for kava taken specifically from the root of the kava plant, rather than the whole plant. The root is where most of the kavalactones are; the bark and leaves don’t add much, and will either dilute the kava or possibly add pesticides or other chemicals you just don’t want.
What Is The Best Way To Take Kava?
Kava is sold either in capsules or as a powder. Pills, of course, are straightforward enough. Powdered kava on the other hand can be taken a few different ways.
First, you can mix it with water or tea and drink it, powder and all. This will be the most potent method of consumption.
Second, you can strain the kava. This will give you a less potent beverage, but a better-tasting one with no powder floating in it.
Third, you can blend kava with a smoothie. This will cause you to ingest as much kavalactones as option one, but the effect will be a bit muted and spread out over a longer period of time, as the smoothie will cause the kava to be absorbed more slowly.
Fourth, there are some instant kava extracts that are meant to be mixed into beverages and dissolve completely, just like instant coffee. This won’t give you the authentic experience, but it is convenient.
Just like alcohol, kava will hit you harder if you ingest it on an empty stomach. If using it to socialize, you may want to have a little bit on an empty stomach, followed by some food before consuming more kava. That way the first dose will hit you faster, then the kava you drink after the food will absorb more slowly, making it easier to stay in the “sweet spot” of relaxed but not sleepy.
What does Kava taste like? It’s not particularly good, so you may also want to chase it with something flavorful. Tea and spicy food are often used for this purpose; since kava numbs the mouth and tongue, it increases one’s ability to tolerate spicy flavors. Mixing kava with some caffeine may also be ideal from a socialization standpoint, though obviously it’s counterproductive if you want to sleep within the next few hours.
Regardless, kava generally kicks in within 30-60 minutes, with the effects being felt for 2-3 hours. You can therefore re-dose every 3 hours or so, and even if it doesn’t feel like it’s working, you should wait an hour before re-dosing to avoid overdosing.
The optimal dosage will vary depending on your body weight, tolerance and anxiety levels. Generally it’s about 70-150 mg for socializing or anxiolytic purposes, or 150-250 mg for sleep. Doses in the 200+ mg range have been used for anxiolytic purposes, but only in people suffering from clinical anxiety disorders; this dosage will generally be excessive for most people.
Drowsiness or impaired driving are usually only seen with doses over 180 mg, though that too will depend on body weight and maybe also what variety is used.
The Best Kava Kava Products—Our Recommendations
Straightforward, easy-to-take, and great ingredients
Like many supplements, the kava world is full of sketchy brands with incomplete and unhelpful labeling, dubiously-sourced product, and harsh extraction methods. As far as we can tell, though, Drink Root is NONE of these. In fact, Drink Root is quite the opposite. Their kava is small-batch and single-origin, and they’ll email you the lab results of the current batch if you email them. Drink Root’s kava is extracted with water, unlike many kava supplements which are extracted with chemical solvents such as ethanol. It’s also just super easy to take—just mix it in water. That’s more than you can say about a lot of kava products, which require you to make a tea out of the powder with a special strainer. If you’re just getting into kava and want a recommendation, Drink Root’s kava is an excellent, no-nonsense buy to dip your toes in.
Best Micronized Kava
Available in cocoa or banana vanilla
- 18.5 servings, 95 mg kavalactones per serving
- Made from whole ground root, not an extract
- Manufactured in a FDA-compliant GMP facility
- Cocoa-flavored; goes well with coffee or hot chocolate
- Extracted with ethanol and sourced from multiple places (not ideal in that respect)
Best Instant Kava
- Pre-brewed and pre-strained
- 50 grams at 6.7-10% kavalactones, or about 25-50 doses for social usage
- Certified organic, and made with water–no solvents
- “Heady” blend from noble kava
- Single-origin from a small farm on Vanuatu
- Made from whole ground root, not an extract
Best Kava Extract Powder
- 32 grams at 30% kavalactones, 100 servings at 96 mg each
- Extracted with a mix of water and ethanol (not ideal)
- Lab tests not available (not ideal)
- Low volume makes it ideal for mixing with another flavored beverage
- Best value for money
Best Kava Supplement
- 72 mg kavalactones per 2-capsule serving
- Manufactured in a FDA-compliant GMP facility
- Every batch is verified by both in-house and 3rd-party labs
- Made from an extract for smaller, easier to swallow capsules
Best Kava Supplement Runner Up
Added ingredients for better relaxation
- 75 mg kavalactones per 1-capsule serving
- Each serving contains 100 mg organic eleuthero root, an adaptogenic herb
- Ideal for anxiety and relaxation without sedation
- Lab-tested and GMP-certified
What’s The Best Kava Tea? None of Them.
We searched and searched for kava teas, and frankly all of them have negligible amounts of kava. So the best kava tea is one you make yourself, with one of the kava powders recommended above. 🙂
Editor’s note: we are regularly updating this review. If you see any problems, weird interpretations of the data, or just want to say hi, please reach out to email@example.com.