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Kava and Nicotine: What’s the Difference?

April 3, 2023

Male enjoying kava with friends

Kava: A Natural Nicotine Substitute

Kava and nicotine. Both are naturally occurring substances found in plants. Both have been sought after and utilized for hundreds—if not, thousands—of years for medicinal, ceremonial, and social purposes. Both can promote feelings of contentment and relaxation for the user. On the surface, kava and nicotine share several similarities, but their differences are vital to recognize and understand. In this post, we’ll examine the differences between kava and nicotine and explain why kava offers a more natural and safer alternative to nicotine.

Origins and Composition


Kava, also known as Piper Methysticum, is a small shrub grown in the Pacific Islands, mainly Fiji, Hawaii, Tonga, and Vanuatu. There is a long history and tradition of islanders using kava plants for social rituals, religious ceremonies, and medicinal purposes. When the root and stump of kava are ground down, made into a drink, and consumed, the effects of kava’s active ingredients—kavalactones— help promote psychological and physiological relaxation.


Nicotine is a naturally occurring chemical derived from plants of the nightshade family. This includes tobacco but also foods like tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. Tobacco plants originated in South America before spreading to North America, Africa, and Australia. Native people of these areas originally used the leaves of tobacco plants to chew, smoke, or use in religious rituals. European colonists exported tobacco crops for profit and changed the focus of tobacco to recreational use for its ability to promote feelings of contentment and relaxation. Today, nicotine is found in popular tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and vaping devices.

The Body’s Response to Kava and Nicotine


Concentrated in kava’s rootstock and roots, kavalactones are the active ingredient responsible for kava’s calming qualities. There are thought to be 18 different kavalactones, with six alone being responsible for over 90 percent of the active natural ingredients in the plant. Kavalactones interact with the body’s limbic system, the part of our brains most associated with regulating emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation, and are responsible for the positive effects of the root. The kavalactones work similarly to a central nervous system depressant, impacting neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. Higher doses of kava can increase dopamine levels, creating a pleasurable sensation.


When it enters the blood, nicotine stimulates the adrenal glands—located just above the kidneys—to stimulate a surge of adrenaline, also called epinephrine. This hormone stimulates the central nervous system, leading to increased blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. Nicotine also stimulates the brain by mimicking dopamine. The effects, however, are short-lived and start to wear off within a few minutes.

Kava Vs. Nicotine: Distinct Differences

There are two key differences between kava and nicotine that are worth examining: the pharmacological differences and the health impact differences.

The Pharmacological Difference—Can You Get Addicted to Kava?

From a clinical standpoint, the pharmacology of kava is very different from nicotine, in that it is non-addictive.

Kava works primarily by altering the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA is the same neurotransmitter system that nicotine and benzodiazepine medications (such as Xanax and Valium) affect, which give those compounds their relaxing properties. However, unlike nicotine or benzos, Kava also affects the norepinephrine and dopamine neurotransmitter systems, and, therefore, does not have the same negative cognitive effects as those drugs do. You get all the relaxation without the withdrawal symptoms.

In contrast to some other substances, you will also not build up a tolerance to kava and its effects. Most addictive substances like alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine have a tolerance level associated with them. That means that after using them for a period of time, your body ends up requiring more and more of the substance in order to generate the same effects. Kava, however, has a reverse tolerance effect. When someone first starts taking kava, it can take several uses before you even feel its effects. The beneficial effects of a drink of kava can be felt even more when less is drunk on subsequent occasions.

Unlike kava, the pharmacokinetic properties of nicotine—or the way it is processed by the body—contributes to it being a highly addictive substance. When cigarette smoke enters the lungs, nicotine is absorbed rapidly in the blood and delivered quickly to the brain, so that nicotine levels peak within 10 seconds of inhalation. But the acute effects of nicotine also dissipate quickly, along with the associated feelings of reward. As a result, the user may start to feel irritated and edgy. This is what most often leads the person to light up again. At some point, the person uses tobacco, the unpleasant feelings go away, and the cycle continues. This rapid cycle causes the smoker to continue dosing to maintain the drug’s pleasurable effects and prevent withdrawal symptoms. This reaction is what drives nicotine addiction. Repeated exposure to nicotine changes the parts of your brain that helps you handle stress, learn effectively, and exhibit self-control.

The Health Impacts Difference—Is Kava Root Safe?

Kava, if consumed correctly, is very safe. The World Health Organization’s Codex Alimentarius stated that “kava has had at least a 1,500-year history of relatively safe use” and that “kava as a traditional beverage is safe for human consumption.” Kava consumption is self-limiting. If you drink too much kava you will start to feel nauseous, which is kava’s way of telling you that you’ve had enough. And, because of its reverse tolerance effect, you don’t have to wonder, “is kava addictive?”

Nicotine, on the other hand, has over five decades of research strongly suggesting that it is a harmful and highly addictive substance. To produce tobacco smoke in products like cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and vaping devices, nicotine is combined with thousands of other chemicals, including at least 70 known to cause cancer. That further implies why tobacco products are currently the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States.

Cigarette smoking leads to disease and disability and harms nearly every organ of the body. Smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic health conditions. The impact also extends beyond the person who smokes. For example, smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth and SIDS. Secondhand smoke, which affects 58 million Americans who don’t smoke, also causes stroke, lung cancer, and heart disease in adults.

Can Kava Kava Help Nicotine Addiction?

Although there’s no doubt that smoking can be deadly and cause several illnesses and diseases, most smokers find it very difficult to quit. Also, many of them fail when they try quitting, which makes them feel frustrated and defeated. Probably, the worst nicotine withdrawal symptom is anxiety. Typically, the first few days (or weeks) after quitting smoking, the craving for nicotine is always present. Fighting these cravings is very hard and many people start smoking again.

When facing the challenge of quitting smoking, many people look for alternatives to help them achieve their goals. Some even try alternative remedies, such as hypnosis and acupuncture. As kava usage becomes more prevalent, people are turning to it to help them quit smoking. The main effect of the kava plant is the feeling of calm and relaxation that it gives you. Thanks to its relaxing and anti anxiety properties, kava can be a good support for those trying to quit smoking. Although there is still not enough evidence that kava is effective in treating nicotine addiction, some studies report that it has helped kava consumers cut their cravings.

If you’re looking for kava to soothe the anxious thoughts that often accompany people trying to quit smoking, we recommend:

  • Tongan Pouni Ono kava: This is a fantastic daytime kava that can be great for soothing anxious thoughts and feelings. Pouni Ono is an uplifting kava that can make you feel happier and uplifted. It provides wonderful mental relaxation and mood enhancement.
  • Vanuatu Borongoru kava and Melomelo kava: These two Vanuatu kavas are wonderful for evening and nighttime consumption. They’re great for winding down and relaxing your mind and body.

Buy Kava Root and Start Living Nicotine Free

More people than ever before are committing to a healthier lifestyle by seeking out all-natural products to use in their daily routines. In 2018, the CDC reported that approximately 55.1% of adult smokers said that they had made a quit attempt in the past year. From its highly addictive nature to its disease-causing tendencies, people are understanding that the potential risks of nicotine may outweigh its benefits.

That’s why at Kalm with Kava we deliver premium kava products, which boast an all-natural solution for the #kalm and relaxation you crave but without the harmful side effects. Shop our full line of kava root products today! Reach out to us if you have any questions about kava benefits and how kava can help ease the anxious thoughts that accompany nicotine withdrawals.

*Please note that this post is not meant to be a comprehensive review of the total safety of kava. Research is increasing every day on how kava affects individuals. Human physiology varies greatly. If you are concerned about introducing kava to your lifestyle, as with any new herbal supplement, it is always advisable to consult with your primary physician.

Important Note:
The information above has not been evaluated by the Federal Drug Administration agency. The information on this page and our products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Before starting a dietary supplement, it’s always wise to check with a medical doctor. It is especially important for people who are: pregnant or breastfeeding, chronically ill, elderly, under 18, taking prescription or over-the-counter medicines. None of the information is intended to be an enticement to purchase and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. Herbal products contain phytochemicals that are not ordinarily found in typical food sources and may produce physiologic effects. Indiscriminate use of any herbal product is not recommended except under the direction of trained health care professionals. In addition, there may be drug interactions that may produce reactions or interfere with the efficacy of prescription medication.

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