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How Does Kava Work? A Lesson in Kavalactones

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how does kava work a lesson in kavalactones

What is kava?

Kava has been consumed for thousands of years by people in the South Pacific Islands for medicinal and social purposes. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that we began to understand the chemistry of kava and how that chemical makeup causes the effects that make it so popular. So, how does kava work, you ask?

Kavalactones: Kava’s Active Ingredients

The known active compounds in kava are called kavalactones. Kavalactones are responsible for kava’s effects on the brain and other parts of the central nervous system.

Kavalactones work by binding onto various receptors in the brain, particularly the part of the brain known as the amygdala, which regulates feelings of fear and anxiety.

Kavalactones are concentrated in the rootstock and roots of the kava plant and not in the stems or leaves, which is why the best kava kava is made only from the deep roots.

Types of Kavalactones

There are a total of 18 different types of kavalactones, with six major types representing 96% of kavalactones. Since these kavalactones make up a majority of a specimen, only these six types are routinely measured and tested.

These are the six major kavalactones and each are assigned an identifying number:

  • 1 = Desmethoxyyangonin (DMY)
  • 2 = Dihydrokavain (DHK)
  • 3 = Yangonin (Y)
  • 4 = Kavain (K)
  • 5 =Dihydromethysticin (DHM) 
  • 6 = Methysticin (M)

Each kavalactone type produce a different physiologic effect in the body.

Kavain, for example, physically relaxes the muscles without affecting the brain (like a muscle relaxant). Desmethoxyyangonin, on the other hand, increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, giving users a mild euphoric sensation.

These six kavalactones make up a natural kava “cocktail” that produces different physiological effects according to the particular mixture. To identify different mixtures, chemical compositions are coded into chemotypes or sequences.

Understanding Chemotypes

A chemotype lists the major kavalactones in an extract by listing them in decreasing order of proportion. For example, the chemotype 521364 indicates that dihydromethysticin (5) is the most prominent kavalactone, dihydrokavain is the second most prominent, and so on.

The first three kavalactones in a chemotype usually represent more than 70 percent of the total kavalactones in the extract. This is important to know because it helps you select the kava product that is based on the results you want.

A chemotype that begins with 426 (kavain, dihydrokavain and methysticin), for example, can help you feel more relaxed, happy and sociable. It is ideal for someone who suffers from social anxiety and wants to feel more comfortable in social situations.

Chemotypes vary based on where the kava is cultivated. Kava cultivated in Hawaii, for example, has a chemotype that almost always starts with the numbers 4 (kavain) and 6 (methysticin).

In the islands of Vanuatu, where the kava used in 1Hour Break is cultivated, the six-digit sequence is more likely to start with 2 (dihydrokavain) and 5 (dihydromethysticin), or 2 and 6 (methysticin). 

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About the Author

Juan Gabriel

Juan Gabriel

The nature of my career constantly pushes me to think outside of the box and I try to apply those same principles to all aspects of my life.

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