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Kava & Psychedelic Beverages: Are They Safe?

“Cracking open a cold one” means something different to just about everyone. Whether it’s a local IPA, a hand-mixed cocktail, or a diet cola, the goal is to relax. These days, the options are nearly limitless. Entire aisles of your local grocery store are dedicated to helping you find exactly the flavor and feeling you’re looking for.

Kava products and psychedelic beverages are a relatively new addition to the popular mix in the United States. They are beginning to pop up in more and more stores and can be purchased legally online. But why do people choose to drink them, and are they safe? We spoke with Bryan Kuhn, PharmD, a poison education specialist at Banner Poison & Drug Information Center, to learn more about these products.

What is kava (Piper methysticum)?

The kava plant is a small shrub found primarily in the South Pacific Islands. There are more than 100 varieties. The powder, which is ground mostly from the root of the plant, is mixed with water to create a kava drink which has a long history with the indigenous islanders. Most will call it an acquired taste, featuring a strong, earthy flavor.

Kuhn commented, “Like alcohol, kava is a depressant. Which means it slows the communication between your brain and body.” He went on to list some of the most noteworthy effects of kava, including:

  • A happy, relaxed demeanor
  • Mild sleepiness
  • Numb mouth and throat
  • Reduced appetite

Effects will vary from person to person. Some may experience all the pleasant feelings described above while others may not. If you drink in excess, you could experience side effects like loss of  muscle control, a low-grade fever, and nausea. Like any mood-altering substance, moderation is vital.

What are psychedelic beverages?

There are a wide range of psychedelic beverages. One popular brand that you may have seen advertised in your Instagram feed is Psychedelic Water. The main ingredients of their flagship beverage include green tea, Damiana leaf, and kava root. In essence, the canned drink is a new variation on the traditional blend. It combines with other ingredients to make the flavor more approachable for the masses. The product is marketed as having similar effects as traditional kava beverages, including bliss, relaxation, detachment from the world, and enhanced creativity. The beverage is lauded as a solution to reduce anxiety, insomnia, stress, and other common problems. Just like traditional kava drinks, the effects will vary from person-to-person.

Liver damage

“’Natural’ or not, you should be aware of the risks associated with what you put in your body,” commented Kuhn. While the benefits over alcohol seem clear, kava may not be immune to some of the risks that we also find in excess use of alcohol. Kuhn added, “Some research suggests that kava could lead to liver injury. But those studies are refuted, leading many to feel confused about the risks of use.”

Weighing the benefits and the risks

At first glance, there are obvious benefits for choosing kava as a replacement for alcohol. Looking beyond recreational use, some psychoactive supplements are being considered as a treatment for many mental health issues, including treating anxiety disorder. Research has not shown kava to create a dependence, which means you will probably be able to stop without suffering withdrawal symptoms. The day-after symptoms are also much milder, which means hangovers could be a thing of the past. But before you trade cans for kava, consider these important reminders:

  • Research is still incomplete. Regulation and research for dietary supplements like kava is still very imperfect. The popularity of alcohol, cigarettes and other harmful substances has driven significant research. We know just how dangerous they are, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has much stricter rules for the manufacturers. Until enough time and interest has been devoted to kava and other psychoactive supplements, we may not fully understand the long-term effects.
  • Exercise moderation and caution. Setting aside the possible risks of liver damage, kava has potential to put you in dangerous situations. The same can be said for alcohol, drugs, and even the abuse of prescribed and over-the-counter medications. Driving under the influence of any mood-altering substance means taking your life and the lives of others into your hands.

The bottom line

“We wouldn’t take prescription medication without assurance from our doctor that it will be safe and effective,” said Kuhn. “Exercise similar caution with kava products, herbal remedies, alternative medicines and substances, which may be backed by less research. In some cases, prescription medication may even come with milder side effects.” If you have questions about kava supplements or need help following the consumption of any similar substance, call Poison Control at (800) 222-1222, or call the Banner Poison & Drug Information Center directly at (602) 253-3334. Both numbers are available 24/7.

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Product information in this article is provided for informational purposes only. It does not constitute an endorsement or an approval by Banner Health of any products, services or opinions of the corporation or organization or individual. 

Nutrition Poison Prevention