Kava and Kratom are increasingly being sold alongside each other at kava bars and in stores online. While they maybe 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: Cultural Traditions
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, Papau New Guinea, Micronesia, and Hawaii). In these Pacific island communities Kava is consumed before the beginning of any 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.
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 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. Adding to this confusion is the fact that the two drinks are now being sold side-by-side in some Kava bars across the country.
Kava and Kratom both have
stimulant and/or sedative effects.
The effects of drinking Kava have been well documented and with increasing scientific research, better understood. Kava can be used to reduce stress or temporary bouts of anxiety, to help manage pain, and relieve muscle tension and to promote overall emotional and physical relaxation. Drinking Kava can reduce social inhibitions and induce a sense of euphoria and happiness akin to other nootropics. With kava, there are 3 categories a variety will fall into: Heady - which are varieties for daytime use that create a clear headed calm and slight boost of energy, Heavy - which are varieties that are better suited for evening use and act with more of a sedative effect, and Balanced - which are a good balance of both.
Kratom has somewhat 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.
In truth 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 previously addicted to heroin or pharmaceutical opioids as a means to wean themselves off these drugs. It has also shown promise as a natural pain reliever for these same characteristics but much research is still needed on the plant.
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 brain most associated with emotions, emotional behavior and motivation. Kavalactones are responsible for the positive effects gained from kava root consumption. 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.
The second main difference between Kratom and Kava is related to legality. Kratom is currently undergoing a heated and complicated legal battle that could make the plant and it's active constituents banned in the US - Kratom Ban
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 in Thailand, 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. While kava was banned in Germany and Switzerland for a number of years ago a result of research suggesting that drinking kava caused liver problems. That ban was lifted in 2015 after further research revealed the liver issues were related to other contributing factors. Learn more.
Kava has been available in the US for over 20 years now and in recent years has been gaining in widespread popularity. Many Kava Bars have opened up across the nation. Countless people are giving up their nightly glass of wine, beer or cocktail and turning to this interesting tropical root as a more natural means of relaxation.
Know the Difference
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 has shown to be highly beneficial for certain individuals and uses, but can be addictive and could face a future ban by the FDA. Drinking Kava on the other hand has no addictive properties, is ingrained in cultural and ceremonial traditions of the countries and islands where it is grown and is gaining in acceptance and popularity as a natural way to relax throughout the U.S.