Kava has been used for at least 3,000 years in the South Pacific. The people of Thailand and Malaysia have used kratom for hundreds of years. In the West, both plants are becoming increasingly popular among people looking for an alternative to alcohol and opioids.
But there are distinctive differences between the kratom and kava worth noting. Let’s dive into what these plants are, what they do, and whether they are actually safe to consume.
- What is Kratom?
- What are the Different Types of Kratom?
- What is Kava?
- Kratom vs Kava: What do Advocates Say?
- Can Sober People Consume Kratom or Kava?
What is Kratom?
Kratom is a tropical tree (Mitragyna speciosa) native to Southeast Asia. Its leaves contain compounds that can have psychotropic (mind-altering) effects. It’s a member of the coffee family and is native to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea, where it has been used in herbal medicine since at least the nineteenth century.
Traditionally, people chewed the leaves to relieve musculoskeletal pain, increase energy, sexual libido, and appetite. They also use the leaves to treat wounds and as a local anesthetic. Kratom is also used to treat coughs, diarrhea, and intestinal infections.
How Does Kratom Work?
Kratom can behave like an opioid or a stimulant depending on strain and dosage taken.
There are two compounds in kratom leaves that are responsible for the opioid-like effects of this plant. Mitragynine and 7-α-hydroxymitragynine interact with the main opioid receptor, the “mu” receptor, which is the same one stimulated by heroin and oxycodone. The effect is mild sedation, pleasure, and pain relief.
Mitragynine also interacts with other receptor systems in the brain to produce stimulant effects, which makes kratom difficult to classify. When taken in small amounts, kratom can actually increase energy and alertness.
What are the Different Types of Kratom?
The effects of kratom depend on the strain and quantity of kratom the user takes. There are three main strains of kratom: red vein, white vein, and green vein. Each possesses unique effects.
White kratom is harvested from young kratom trees. It is the most potent of all three strains and known for its euphoric effects.
White vein kratom has the highest mitragynine content of any strain, which gives it a strong stimulant effect.
Green vein kratom is in between white and red strains in terms of potency and effect. It is harvested in the middle stage of the kratom tree’s life cycle and has a gentler stimulant effect than the white vein strain. It can also help improve mental clarity and focus.
Red vein kratom is the most popular strain of the three. It is harvested from the most mature kratom trees and has the highest 7-hydroxymitragynine content. Translation: this strain is used for sedative effects and pain relief.
What is Kava?
Kava is an herbal substance that comes from the root of Piper methysticum – a plant native to the Western Pacific Islands and a member of the pepper family.
Kava comes from the Polynesian word “awa” which means “intoxicating pepper.” There are over 100 varieties of kava throughout the South Pacific and it has traditionally been used as both a medicinal treatment and a part of religious ceremonies.
How Does Kava Work?
Kavalactones, the active ingredient in kava, are sticky, insoluble substances that act as a muscle relaxant when absorbed into the bloodstream. There are six primary kavalactones responsible for roughly 90% of the active ingredients in various kava varieties.
These kavalactones act as a depressant on the central nervous system. It impacts GABA receptors and stimulates dopamine in the brain, similarly to how alcohol impacts the brain (but not quite the same).
Kava is typically consumed as a beverage or extract. It has sedative, euphoric, and psychotropic properties. Unlike alcohol, it doesn’t alter your perception of reality and allows you to remain clear-headed.
Different Types of Kava
Kava varieties and their effects are based on kavalactones, which make up the chemotype of the kava powder (remember the six kavalactones). Based on this composition, kava is classified as either heady, heavy, or balanced.
- Heady kavas are mood-boosting. Users feel more relaxed and bubbly without any drowsiness.
- Chemotype: kavalactones Kavain (#4) and Yangonin (#3)
- Heavy kavas make your body feel physically heavy and your mind deeply relaxed. Will cause drowsiness.
- Chemotype: kavalactones DHK (#2) and DHM #5
- It’s what it sounds like – a balance of both and heady and heavy kava types.
Kratom vs Kava: How are They Consumed?
Kratom can be taken as a powder or pill form. Traditionally, users would chew the leaves. You can also brew kratom leaves in a tea or bake it into food.
Kava was traditionally chewed into a pulp and then spat into water. Today people will also consume it in the form of pre-made liquids, pills, teas, or tinctures. Kava root can be ground down and then brewed in hot water as tea. You can also buy micronized kava root, which is an extremely fine powder you add to liquid. Lastly, you can purchase a concentrated kava extract to add to drinks.
Kratom vs Kava: What are the Risks?
Kratom and kava are not without health risks. Although they’ve been used hundreds, or in the case of kava, thousands of years by indigenous people in Southeast Asia and the West Pacific Islands, new adopters are experiencing some negative consequences.
This is attributed, in large part, to a fairly unregulated product that can be bought from unvetted sources on the internet. Several factors including potency, strains, variety, and dosage impact the safety of kratom and kava.
Although there is limited research on kratom and kava use, what we do know is that chronic, longterm use tends to produce the most adverse effects.
A 2014 (small) study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence showed that half of surveyed, long-term kratom users had developed severe dependence problems. Additionally, there have been some reports of hallucinations, seizures, and liver damage from users who combined kratom with alcohol or other drugs.
Thailand, a country where kratom is indigenous, has actually made kratom consumption illegal due to the negative effects and ease of which kratom can be abused.
Similar to kratom, long-term, chronic kava use seems to be the most dangerous. Chronic users have suffered from liver failure and cirrhosis. There have even been reports of death. There are some theories that kava alone does not cause liver failure, but rather the combination of kava and alcohol.
Why does this happen? The enzymes that metabolize kava are the same enzymes needed to metabolize drugs and alcohol. As a result, these enzymes can’t properly metabolize the drugs and this leads to liver damage.
There are other theories that kava, alone, becomes metabolized into a substance that directly damages liver cells.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested that water-based kava beverages are “safer” but that moderate to heavy consumption can raise liver enzymes. They have linked the toxicity to raw kava root, contamination of the root while in storage, and combining kava with other herbal drugs.
What we do know is that we don’t know why chronic kava usage damages the liver. Because there are so many unknowns, Canada and Europe have banned kava. However, it remains available on the US market.
Kratom vs Kava: Potential Side Effects
Unfortunately, there are a number of negative side effects from both kratom and kava use that you should be aware of. The risk of these side effects depends on a number of factors including:
- Dosage and potency
- Combining with alcohol or drugs
- Interactions with prescription medicines
- Long term use
When one or more of these factors are present, there are a number of side effects that range from mild to severe.
Negative Side Effects of Kratom
Reported health effects of kratom use include:
- dry mouth
- increased urination
- loss of appetite
Symptoms of psychosis have been reported in some users.
Because kratom is currently unregulated, there are additional safety concerns about what is actually in kratom sold over the internet. Quality standards are something kratom advocates continue to lobby for as the debate over kratom continues.
Negative Side Effects of Kava
Potential negative side effects of kava can also range from mild to severe and include the following:
- Impaired coordination
- Skin rash
- Blurred vision
- Weight gain
As mentioned previously, chronic, long term use has also been linked to liver disease and cirrhosis.
Kratom vs Kava: What do Advocates Say?
Kratom and kava are not without their fierce defenders and advocates. While proponents continue to lobby for their continued legal status, they are running up against opposition from the federal government and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Kratom Legal Fight
In 2014, the DEA published a report demonstrating severe dependence use among half of the surveyed kratom users. This led to efforts in the DEA to classify kratom as a Schedule 1 narcotic which led to a protest and petition against the ban from kratom proponents. As of 2020, the FDA issued warnings to manufacturers to stop advertising kratom as an herbal supplement to treat anxiety, addiction, pain, or any other health issues. Its status remains tenuous.
What Kratom Advocates Say
Kratom advocates believe that it is a critical tool in combatting the opioid crisis as it offers a safer alternative to opioids and can help opioid addicts overcome their addiction. Some veterans report using kratom to manage their PTSD and alcoholism. It has also been used by people suffering from fibromyalgia.
A 2015 study out of Thailand showed that kratom has been used to successfully treat opioid addiction, although it remains illegal to use recreationally.
Because the science on kratom is so new, kratom advocates say that the plant is being unfairly targeted and misrepresented. Whereas they are not opposed to kratom’s regulation or the establishment of quality standards (they openly advocate for these), they do not want to see access to kratom stripped from users who have come to rely on it as an alternative to more harmful drugs and substances.
Please note that none of the claims being made by kratom proponents have been verified by the medical community. Studies on kratom’s potential harm and benefits remain ongoing.
What Kava Advocates Say
Kava has a significantly longer history than kratom, dating back thousands of years, so more is known about it, although its use remains legally tenuous in various parts of the world.
Research on the usefulness of kava has shown that it is possibly effective at helping with the symptoms of anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder, and this is believed to be because of the similar way that it affects the brain as anti-anxiety drugs.
Along with anxiety-relief, some people take kava because they feel it boosts their mood and helps them fall asleep more easily. Due to these relaxing properties, it is also sometimes used to treat attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even withdrawal from certain drugs.
The problem is that research also suggests that chronic and long-term use can lead to severe liver damage and death, so it doesn’t work as a long-term replacement for traditional anxiety medications. Even kava advocates note that it is only intended for short-term use.
Can Sober People Consume Kratom or Kava?
That is the million dollar question! And it doesn’t have a simple answer.
Generally speaking, my philosophy on sobriety is that if you’re taking something to chemically alter your mood in order to deal with reality, you’re flirting with relapse.
Kratom and kava are slippery slopes for people in recovery. We can abuse both the same way we abused alcohol which may open the floodgates in our brains. At mild potencies, I’m not too sure. I drink an over-the-counter kava tea from Yogi that is nice with the mildest of mild effects.
Would I buy actual kava powders with moderate to high potency? No. I know where that leads. Also, people who drink or drank alcohol heavily should certainly avoid any substance that can lead to further liver damage.
That being said, advocates for both say that kratom (especially) and kava can play important role in harm reduction strategies that aim to help people with opioid addictions.
If your primary interest in kava or kratom is as an alcohol replacement or a “safer” escape from reality, then I strongly advise against it. We’re constantly looking for slippery slopes, ways to pseudo-evade our sobriety without really relapsing. Nothing good comes of that. Our brain chemistry isn’t designed to be satisfied in the gray areas.
When it comes to kratom vs kava, there is a lot more we need to learn. Whereas there are some promising benefits of both plants, there are also concerning health risks associated with both.
If you’re in recovery and eying these products, proceed with caution, speak with your doctor or counselor, and make sure you understand the associated risks.