Last published: December 14, 2020
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).4
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.5
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.6
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 following effects may be experienced:
- feeling happy and relaxed
- mild sleepiness
- numb mouth and throat
- reduced or loss of appetite.7
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.7
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.3
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.7,8
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.7
- Kava + alcohol: increased drowsiness, impaired reflexes and risk of liver damage.
- Kava + benzodiazepines: sedation.3
Kava in Australia
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.
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 4kg of kava without a license or permit, provided it is in their accompanied baggage.
Restrictions in Western Australia and the Northern Territory mean that kava cannot be brought into these jurisdictions.
The Australian Government's Budget 2020-21 included measures to increase consumer access to kava and are due to be implemented by 2021.9
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.7
If your use of Kava is affecting your health, family, relationships, work, school, financial or other life situations, you should seek help and support.
Help and support
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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. [Accessed 27 November 2020].
- University of Maryland Medical Centre. Kava Kava UMMC; 2011. [Accessed 27 November 2020].
- Michigan Medicine. Kava University of Michigan; 2020. [Accessed 27 November 2020].
- National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health. Kava: NCCIH; 2016. [Accessed 27 November 2020].
- Lee K, Freeburn B, Ella S, Miller W, Perry J & Conigrave K. Handbook for Aboriginal Alcohol and Drug Work. 2012. [Accessed 27 November 2020].
- 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. [Accessed 27 November 2020].
- Territory Health Services Public Health Strategy Unit. The Public Health Bush Book: Public Health Strategy Unit, Dept. of Health and Community Services; 2005.
- The Office of Drug Control. Import restrictions: Kava and Khat: Australian Government Department of Health; 2020.