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The Science Behind the Natural Calm of Kava

April 11, 2016

Time to learn more about Kava and kavalactones. How does kava work? What are kavalactones? Here we explain the science behind kava’s calming effects. Scientific research has led to a greater understanding of the active ingredients, or kavalactones, in kava root and the beneficial, natural calming effect that drinking kava provides.

How Does Kava Work? Kavalactones

The key benefit of drinking Kava is its ability to relax your mind and muscles; naturally giving you an overwhelming sense of calmness without hindering your mental clarity. Why and how does this happen? The answer is kavalactones.

Kavalactones are the active ingredients found in Kava plants. There are 18 different kavalactones, with six being more important than the others. These six alone are responsible for over 90% of the active natural ingredients in any given Kava variety. These kavalactones with their corresponding numbers are listed below:

  • Demethoxyyangonin = #1
  • Dihydrokavain = #2
  • Yangonin = #3
  • Kavain = #4
  • Dihydromethysticin = #5
  • Methysticin = #6

Effects of Kavalactones

While the science of Kava is still in its infancy, it is known that certain kavalactone effects are associated with different physiological effects on the body. And that’s crucial for understanding more specifically how kava works.

For example, one of the first sensations you feel when drinking Kava can be a slight numbing of the tongue and lips (don’t worry, this is only temporary). This is caused by the two kavalactones Kavain and Dihydrokavain. They cause a contraction of the blood vessels in these areas and act like a local topical anesthetic. Kava’s ability to create physical and mental calmness has been attributed to all six of the main lactones. These unique kavalactone effects create a clear-headed calm.

Studies have shown that Kavain and the other kavalactones interact with the limbic system, the part of our brains most associated with emotions, emotional behavior and motivation. The amygdala is the part of the limbic system that regulates feelings of fear and anxiety. Kavalactones have been shown to bind to the receptors in that part of the brain. This could explain why Kava has the ability to reduce feelings of anxiety and promote a sense of calm.

How does kava work? Different kavalactones, or active ingredients within kava root, promote different physical and mental effects.

Kava Chemotype Naming

Each of the 100 plus varieties of Kava Root has a different combination of the six kavalactones.

Scientific analysis is able to reveal this combination and identify the relative concentration of each within the plant. Kava varieties are assigned a chemotype; a six digit number that lists the kavalactones in order, starting with the lactone with the highest percentage. For example, a popular variety of Kava called Borogu, can be associated with a chemotype of 246531. What does this mean? As 2 is the first number, that indicates that the lactone Dihydrokavain has the highest percentage in the plant. The next number, 4 indicates that the second highest percentage chemical ingredient was Kavain. Third, came Methysticin, (kavalactone number 6), and so on.

The chemotype effectively tells you the chemical make-up and kavalactone effects of any variety of Kava you are purchasing. For example, kavas high in Yangonin are often better used as daytime kavas because they can be slightly stimulating. Kavas high in DHK and DHM are better suited for evening use as these kavalactones’ effects are more sedating. The chemotype can also help you identify where the Kava you are purchasing comes from. For example, Hawaiian kava cultivars almost always have a chemotype starting with the numbers 46.

The Magic in the Mixture

So the next time you are asked ‘how does kava work? The quick and easy response is ‘the kavalactones in the root are responsible for kava’s calming effects’. Understanding chemotypes and learning about kavalactones and their distinct physiological effects is interesting, but there are two things you really need to know:

  1. There is a strong scientific explanation for why drinking Kava reduces stress and anxiousness. You can trust that all those proclamations about the wonderful things that Kava can do are TRUE.
  1. No single kavalactone is responsible for the powerful calming effect of drinking Kava. Quite the opposite. It is the combination of kavalactones that gives the drink its potency.

Nature has effectively done an excellent job of creating the right mix of active ingredients to make Kava the perfect drink for those wanting a natural way to relax and de-stress.

And that concludes today’s chemistry lesson on keeping calm with Kava. We hope we’ve answered your question ‘how does kava work?’

Bula and Happy Kava drinking!

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