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Kava vs Kratom: The Important Differences You Need to Know

May 19, 2016

Kava and Kratom are increasingly being sold alongside each other at kava bars and in stores online. While they may be similar in name and drink appearance, truth is, they are worlds apart. In this post, we look at some the similarities and differences and explain why it is important for buyers and consumers not to confuse the two.

East vs West Culture

Kratom is a tropical, evergreen tree in the coffee family, botanical name Mitragyna speciosa. It is native to Southeast Asia, (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Borneo, etc.) where it has been a part of traditional culture for thousands of years. There, it is traditionally chewed, in raw leaf form, by workers to stave off exhaustion, relieve pain, and as a mood enhancer.

Kava is a plant of the pepper family, botanical name Piper Methysticum, indigenous to the Western Pacific (Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, and Hawaii). In these Pacific island communities, Kava is consumed before the beginning of an important religious ritual or ceremony. Most commonly though it is used as a beverage to relax and unwind from the day. Often served at Nakamals (Kava Bars), it is drunk socially instead of alcohol.

Similarities: preparation, uses and effects

The leaves of the Kratom tree can be chewed but more frequently they are dried, then crushed to create a powder that is mixed with to water to create a drink or added to another drink to mask the taste. Dried leaves can also be used to make a tea. Similarly, the traditional preparation of a Kava drink includes mixing ground kava root powder with water then steeping and straining to create a murky brown tea. Both can also been found in pill form. These similarities in preparation and appearance are another reason it is easy for consumers to confuse Kratom and Kava or assume they are similar in nature. This confusion is being added to as the two drinks are now being sold side-by-side in some Kava bars across the country.

Both Kava and Kratom can have simulant and sedative effects. 

The effect of drinking Kava has been well documented and there is an increasing body of research that proves how it can be used to reduce stress, anxiety and pain or to promote muscle and emotional relaxation. Drinking Kava can reduce social inhibitions and induce a sense of euphoria and happiness akin to other nootropics.

Kratom has similar effects depending on the dosage. It is a psychoactive drug, that when consumed at a low dosage makes people more energetic, talkative, agitated and socially hyperactive. On the other hand, a higher dosage creates a sedative effect, pain relief, and a euphoric experience or dream like state.

These unique effects mean that both Kava and Kratom can be consumed for the purposes of recreational relaxation and to treat the same physical and psychological conditions.

But that’s where the similarities end. 

Kava vs Kratom: Distinct Differences

There are two key differences between Kratom and Kava that everyone needs to know.

  1. The Pharmacological Difference – Kratom is addictive, Kava is not.

Where Kava and Kratom diverge is from a pharmacological perspective and how they react with the brain.

Kratom contains alkaloids. The alkaloids in Kratom interact with the opioid systems in the brain, the systems that play key roles in modulating how we respond to pain. The alkaloids in Kratom act as opiate receptor agonists in the same way that morphine or other opiates do. From a pharmacological perspective, though Kratom is not an opiate itself, its’ effects are very similar to those of opiate drugs and it comes with the same risks of addiction.

While, there has been little scientific research on Kratom, the main psychoactive ingredients in Kratom are believed to be the alkaloids mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. The latter is known to be orally active in animals as an analgesic. These alkaloids produce normal opioid side effects. This explains why Kratom can be addictive.  Opioid side effects include the development of tolerance, where tolerance means that the effect of a drug lessens over time, and there is withdrawl syndrome upon abstinence.  

The unique chemical make-up and effects of Kratom has resulted in the plant being used by people addicted to heroin as a means to wean themselves off the drug. Unfortunately, this can backfire. This story in the New York Times tells of how one heroin addict turned to Kratom as a means of quitting only to find herself addicted to the drink instead.

The pharmacology of Kava is very different from Kratom. While scientific research into Kratom is in its infancy, there is a growing body of scientific data on the chemistry of Kava and its’ effects. The main active ingredients in Kava are kavalactones with six alone being more important than others and responsible for over 90 percent of the active natural ingredients in the plant. Active ingredients vary depending on the variety of the plant and these are identified by a plant chemotype. Read more about the science of Kava.

Kavalactones interact with the limbic system, the part of our brains most associated with emotions, emotional behavior and motivation and are responsible for the positive effects of the root. Unlike the alkaloids in Kratom, the Kavalactones in Kava are not opiate agonists and do not pose the risk of opioid side effects such as the risk of addiction.  

  1. Legal Differences

The second main difference between Kratom and Kava is related to legality. Kratom is bcoming widely regulated and banned while this is not the case with Kava and for good reason.

The FDA doesn’t regulate Kratom as a drug because it’s marketed as a dietary supplement. However, the agency did ban imports of the herb in 2014 over concerns that it was unsafe and possibly toxic. On the other hand, several states have already banned the use of Kratom. These include Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming. Florida and New Jersey are waiting to pass bills until more is known about it. This Business Insider article describes Kratom as a legal but dangerous drug.

Even in Thailand where the plant grows in abundance and is widely used, Kratom has been outlawed for over 70 years since 1943. The original ban was linked to Kratom reducing Thai government tax revenues from opium distribution. And while in recent years there have been calls to decriminalize Kratom and remove it from the list of banned narcotics, this has yet to happen. One reason for this could be the connection between Kratom and crime in the country. In Thailand in 2011, more than 13,000 people were arrested for kratom-related crimes (5% of all drug-related crimes in that country). The use of Kratom is also prohibited in Malaysia where users can be penalized with a maximum imprisonment. 

At the same time Kava is gaining worldwide acceptance as a natural and safe herbal product. Recently Dr. Matthias Schmidt got the German court to overturn their 15-year ban on kava finding it to be inappropriate and unfounded. Many universities have been delving into the research on kava finding it to be as effective in treating anxiety as benxodiazepine drugs, and even the possibility of fighting cancer cells

In conclusion

While Kava and Kratom may be offered alongside one another at your local kava bar and online, it’s important to know the differences. Kratom can be addictive and is becoming increasingly banned in the U.S, whereas there are no such prohibitions on Kava and its’ active ingredients which mean that there are no risks of addiction. So when you are presented with a choice between Kava and Kratom, our recommendation would be to choose kava, you’ll be happy you did.

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