Last published: February 28, 2022
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
Kava kava, kawa, waka, lewena, yaqona, grog (Fiji), sakau (Pohnpei), ‘awa (Hawaii), ‘ava (Samoa) and wati (New Guinea).2
How is it used?
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.3
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.11
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 environment (where the drug is taken).
The following effects may be experienced:
- feeling happy and relaxed
- mild sleepiness
- numb mouth and throat
- reduced or loss of appetite.5
If a large amount of kava is taken the following effects may also be experienced:
- loss of muscle control
- mild fever
- pupil dilation and red eyes.5
Regular use of large amounts of kava may eventually cause:
- mood swings
- dry, scaly skin
- malnutrition and severe weight loss
- getting infections more easily
- shortness of breath.
Manufactured products such as herbal remedies that contain kava extract have been linked to irreversible liver damage. Kava has been shown to cause liver damage when taken in an alcoholic or acetonic extract. For this reason water based extracts of Kava ( as a drink or tablet) should not be consumed with alcohol, especially if there is a history of liver damage or disease.5,6
Impact of mood and environment
Drugs that affect a person’s mental state (psychoactive drugs) can also have varied effects depending on a person’s mood (often called the ‘set’) or the environment they are in (the ‘setting’):
- Set: a person’s state of mind, previous encounters with psychedelic drugs, and expectations of what’s going to happen. For example, feelings of stress or anxiety before using kava may result in an unpleasant experience.7
- Setting: the environment in which someone consumes kava – whether it’s known and familiar, who they’re with, if they’re indoors or outdoors, the type of music and light. For example, using kava in a calm, quiet and relaxed environment can lead to, or contribute to, a pleasant experience but being in a noisy, crowded place may result in a negative experience.7
- Being in a good state of mind, with trusted friends and a safe environment before taking kava reduces the risk of having a negative experience.
Using kava with other drugs
Kava changes the way that the liver processes some types of medications and drugs, therefore you should consult with your healthcare provider before taking kava.5
- Kava + alcohol: increased drowsiness, impaired reflexes and risk of liver damage.
- Kava + benzodiazepines: sedation.3
- Avoid taking kava if you plan to drive or use machinery
- Avoid using kava and alcohol together
- children, pregnant and breastfeeding women should not use kava
- do not use kava if you have liver disease
- have regular breaks from kava use
- Drink kava in moderation as drinking large quantities may produce dry, itchy, and scaly skin
- Kava has the potential to interact with several drugs and medications. Talk with a health professional before use
Kava in Australia
The import, advertising and sale of kava in Australia are strictly controlled.
Passengers coming into Australia, who are over the age of 18 years, are allowed to bring 4kg of kava without a license or permit, provided it is in their accompanied baggage.8
For use as food
The importation of kava, for food use, is prohibited unless the importer holds a permit issued by the office of Drug Control. A number of regulations must be followed to comply with Imported Food Control Act 1992.8
A permit is required for each shipment. If kava is imported without a permit, it can be seized by Australian Border Force.
Media outlets have reported that a permit has been granted to sell kava drink in selected supermarkets as part of the Australian Government’s Kava pilot.9
Medical and scientific use
The importation of kava for medical and/or scientific purposes is prohibited unless the importer holds a licence and permit issued by the Office of Drug Control.8
There is no evidence that people who regularly use kava become dependent on the drug, so if you stop taking it, you are unlikely to experience withdrawal symptoms. However, if you have health problems seek medical advice.5
If your use of Kava is affecting your health, family, relationships, work, school, financial or other life situations, you should seek help and support.
Call our DrugInfo line on 1300 85 85 84 for confidential and non-judgmental information and advice.
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- Thomson N Urquhart B. Review of the misuse of kava among Indigenous people. Mt Lawley, Western Australia, Australia: Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, Kurongkurl Katitjin: Centre for Indigenous Australian Education and Research, Edith Cowan University; 2009
- National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health. Kava 2016 [16.11.2020].
- Lee K, Freeburn B, Ella S, Miller W, Perry J & Conigrave K. Handbook for Aboriginal Alcohol and Drug Work. 2012.
- Currie B & Clough A. Kava hepatotoxicity with Western herbal products: does it occur with traditional kava use? Medical Journal of Australia. 2003;178(9).
- Ramzan I. Phytotherapies: Efficacy, Safety, and Regulation. New Jersey: John Wiley & Son; 2015 [16.11.2020].
- Territory Health Services Public Health Strategy Unit. The Public Health Bush Book 2005 16.11.2020].
- Nutt D. Drugs without the hot air : making sense of legal and illegal drugs. Cambridge: UIT Cambridge Ltd; 2012.
- Office of Drug Control. Import requirements: Kava202125.02.2022.
- Seymour J. Fiji Kava’s (ASX:FIJ) Drinking Kava to hit Coles shelves nationally. The Market Herald 2022 16.02.2022.