In some countries, teas are so highly revered that there are ceremonies for it. In Japan and China, tourists watch or participate in tea ceremonies all year ‘round. In some islands in the Pacific, there’s a special tea tradition involving a well-loved drink called kava tea or kava kava. Learn more about what makes kava tea special, as well as the side effects to watch out for when trying this drink.
What Is Kava Tea?
Kava tea comes from kava (Piper methysticum), a plant that's native to islands in the South Pacific. Other nicknames for kava tea include kava kava and 'awa.1 Kava kava is usually served in a coconut shell and swallowed in one or two gulps. When drinking it this way, you should mention thoughts of gratitude, especially toward the person who served the drink.2
Kava tea is often consumed before religious rituals or ceremonies, formal functions, social events or get-togethers.3 Aside from cultural impacts, kava tea is respected for its medicinal effects. The kava plant’s roots and underground stem are also used medicinally and made into extracts, pills and drinks.4
Health Benefits of Kava Tea
Arguably, kava is most known for helping ease anxiety,5,6 restlessness and stress, and in helping people suffering from insomnia because of its potential to induce sleepiness.7,8 However, additional research has discovered other possible health benefits of drinking kava tea:
• Improved brain performance: Authors of a 2004 Human Psychopharmacology study discovered that kava extracts promoted better cognitive abilities and cheerfulness.9
• Assist people in curbing addictions: According to a 2001 Pacific Health Dialog article, some of kava’s active ingredients may assist people who want to resolve their addiction to substances like alcohol, cigars and cigarettes.10,11
• Help in stroke recovery: Kava tea or extract can also be offered to patients recovering from a stroke12 and help shield the brain from the effects of oxygen deprivation,13 as long as it has been permitted by a doctor.
• Ease menstrual pain and premenstrual syndrome:14,15 According to a 2003 article in the journal Maturitas, kava administration helped promote better moods and reduced anxiety symptoms among women in their perimenopausal stages.16
Other known properties and benefits that drinking kava tea offers include the following:17
• Anesthetic18 and analgesic:19 Kava tea may assist with pain and muscle spasm relief.20 Chewing the root also has this effect, although it can cause numbing and tingling in the tongue.
• Anti-inflammatory21 and antiseptic: Kava tea can be useful if you have a toothache or sore throat. This tea may assist in addressing urinary tract infections,22 cystitis, urethritis, urinary frequency and bladder irritability too.23
• Diuretic: While kava is said to possess diuretic properties, the book, “Natural Standard Herb & Supplement Guide,” strongly advises consultation with a doctor before using it for this purpose.24
Kava can be applied topically to help address skin diseases like leprosy, promote wound healing and act as a painkiller, or be used as a mouthwash to target canker sores and toothaches.25
How to Prepare Kava Tea
Kava tea is made by simmering the kava plant’s roots in water, although the tea can also be made by combining kava powder with water. If you’re buying kava powder, ensure that it contains kava root extract so you can reap the drink’s benefits.27 To see if you have bought an instant mix or not, check if the powder completely dissolves in water without leaving any residue. If it does, it’s instant.28
In the Pacific Islands, kava tea is made by straining 1 to 2 ounces of dried kava powder (approximately 2 to 4 tablespoons per person) in water using a nylon stocking, cheesecloth, strainer or muslin bag. The bag is immersed in a bowl of cool water. Afterward, the kava powder is hand-kneaded. At first, the powder will feel oily because of kava’s kavalactone content, but constant kneading will reduce the oiliness. Stop kneading once the powder doesn’t feel oily and the water is mud-like.
People who don’t feel like kneading powder can repetitively bring the strainer bag out of the bowl, squeeze it and place it back in the water. If you don’t have enough time for this kneading method, you can use a blender instead. Here’s how to easily brew kava tea:29
Making Traditional Kava Tea at Home
• 2 to 4 tablespoons dried kava powder
• 1 cup water
1. Combine the kava powder and water.
2. Blend together for four minutes.
3. Pour mixture into a nylon sieve or cheese cloth. Squeeze excess liquid into a bowl. Discard the pulp afterward and enjoy.
This makes 1 serving.
How to Store Kava Tea
Kava roots or powder must be stored in well-sealed containers and protected from heat, light and moisture.30 According to kava powder manufacturer Kava by Rex, brewed kava tea can be stored inside your refrigerator for two weeks or more. After this period, it may “sour” instead of spoil, because of its high starch content. The more sterile your hands and kava drink-making equipment are, the longer the drink will last in the refrigerator.31
If Consumed in Excess, Kava Tea Side Effects May Occur
Speaking in an article published in Eater, Chris Ludwigh, a bartender from a New York-based kava bar, notes that some of the sedative effects of kava brew may register in 10 to 15 minutes.32 In other cases, drowsiness may occur 30 minutes after drinking the beverage.33
Excessive, long-term kava tea consumption may also lead to liver damage, as the kavain narrows blood vessels and prompts liver cell lining to retract.34 If you have liver disease or a history of liver problems, refrain from drinking kava tea.35 Another side effect of long-term, heavy and consistent consumption of kava is the development of a scaly skin rash called a dermopathy. There are three possible causes for this, namely:36,37
• An interference with cholesterol metabolism
• Kava lactone or flavopigment accumulation
• Allergic systemic/contact dermatitis
• Sebotropic or persistent photosensitivity reaction
Avoid consuming kava tea alongside alcohol38 and pharmaceutical drugs like sedatives, diuretics, phenothiazine drugs, levodopa and/or liver-metabolized medicines or anti-anxiety medicines,39 because this can lead to a high risk of adverse effects, such as worsened depression. People with Parkinson’s disease must avoid drinking kava tea because this can exacerbate the disease.
If you’re scheduled to undergo surgery, stop drinking kava tea two weeks before the procedure. Kava may affect the central nervous system and increase the effects of anesthesia and other medicines utilized during and after surgery.
Drinking kava tea isn’t advisable for pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers, because it can affect the uterus. Some chemicals in kava tea may also be passed to the breastmilk and can negatively affect the development of an infant. Young children mustn’t drink this tea, either.
Avoid drinking kava tea before driving. Incidents of “driving under the influence” connected to kava tea occurred with some people because they drove erratically after drinking large amounts of this beverage.40
You Can Enjoy Kava Tea, but Do It Carefully
Tea can be a unique part of a group’s culture, and the Pacific Islanders’ respect for kava tea or kava kava proves this. Although kava tea may not be familiar to people living on the other side of the globe, this drink's potential benefits can be worth considering.
However, drinking kava tea may have its drawbacks, especially when consumed in excess. This beverage may enhance the effects of certain medications, worsen some conditions, or raise your risk for conditions like liver damage and dermopathy. As such, it’s advisable to consult a doctor before drinking kava tea.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Kava Tea
Q: Does kava tea work?
A: Yes. Kava tea can provide various benefits, and it’s known to contain anesthetic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and diuretic properties. Kava tea can be beneficial in relieving stress and anxiety, addressing menopause symptoms, alleviating skin conditions and more.
Q: Is kava tea safe to drink?
A: Kava tea is safe to drink in moderation. Side effects like liver damage and a scaly skin rash called dermopathy may develop if kava tea is consumed in excessive amounts.
Q: Does kava tea show up on drug tests?
A: Kava may or may not show up in routine drug tests like a urinary test or a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.41
Q: Where do you buy kava tea?
A: Kava stores in islands like Fiji or Vanuatu are good places to look for kava products. If you happen to go on a vacation in any of these islands, you might want to ask locals for recommendations. However, stores like this are uncommon in the U.S., so you can consider buying kava tea and other kava products from a reputable website.42