If you're like millions of Americans, you've probably never been to a kava bar. No, it's not a wine bar that exclusively deals with Spanish sparkling wine, but a bar that specializes in kava, a substance known for its ability to ease anxiety, decrease stress, relax muscles, and create a sense of well-being. But what is kava, exactly, and why is it suddenly springing up all over the place?
Kava is a tropical plant species that belongs to the pepper family (it's also known as intoxicating pepper). For centuries, Pacific Islanders have been using kava as a medicinal plant, as well as in religious and cultural ceremonies, like weddings and royal events.
The traditional way to prepare it is to create a kava tea by steeping either fresh kava or ground, powdered kava in cold water. The drink is then shaken or stirred to keep it from separating.
At a kava bar, like our merchant partner Ohana Kava Bar in Colorado Springs, kava is served as a plain beverage in shells or mixed into nonalcoholic cocktails. It can also be consumed as a paste.
Studies have shown that kavalactones, the active ingredients in kava, cause the plant to act as a muscle relaxant. When people consume kava, they often describe feeling a sense of calm come over them. The kavalactones also can produce a feeling of mild euphoria, the result of the kavalactones raising dopamine levels. In fact, there's some evidence that kava can be a viable natural alternative to prescription anti-anxiety medication.
You might have, actually. Kava (sometimes labeled as kava kava) is often sold in the U.S. as a dietary supplement, instead of a beverage, though that could change soon.
Kava bars are starting to appear across the U.S. as more and more people are turned on to kava's benefits. The bars are often styled like coffeehouses, with comfy chairs that encourage people to settle in for a while. And because people typically consume kava at night while socializing with friends and family, these bars promote a sense of community. Add in the notion of an "all-natural" plant high, and it makes sense that kava bars are suddenly springing up across the country.
It's been described as earthy and bitter, definitely an acquired taste. But people usually consume kava for its effects, not its taste, so most just throw it back quickly, like a shot.
If you're new to kava, a kava-bar barista can help you figure out what to order. On its website, our merchant partner Ohana Kava Bar recommends that newbies drink 3–4 traditional shells or a 12- to 16-ounce specialty drink.
There is some conflicting information about this. One study in Germany in the early 2000s linked kava to liver damage, leading to a ban of kava in the country. However, the ban was reversed about a decade later when it was deemed there was insufficient evidence to support the German study's conclusion. Apparently not enough people experienced liver damage to justify an outright ban, the German courts determined.
Still, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the FDA took that study seriously and believes that consumers should be informed of the potential risk for liver damage.
It's clear more research is needed on kava and its effects, so it's best to talk to your doctor before you consume kava if you're concerned.