Can Kava Get You High?

Given its increasing reputation as a mellowing medicine of the South Pacific, one the question about kava that we hear a lot is, “Can kava get you high?” The answer to this question is ultimately a matter of perspective: “high” is a broad term that takes in dozens of psychoactive plants with their own unique effects on the body and mind, and as such the word means a lot of different things to different people. What we can say with certainty about kava is that for most people it engenders feelings of deep relaxation, mental clarity and a general contentment that often lasts into the next day.

Most people actually compare their kava experiences to some of the best aspects of mild alcohol intoxication. Like alcohol, imbibing a kava brew usually creates feelings of slight sedation, increased sociability and a reduction in anxiety, which is why kava has remained the preeminent social lubricant in the South Pacific Islands and Hawaiian Archipelago. Unlike alcohol, a properly prepared kava beverage (in which only the roots are used) is much gentler on the liver and won’t cause the muddled thinking or impaired judgment that can accompany alcohol use. The side effects of drinking kava are fairly mild and usually limited to a slight feeling of disorientation and motor impairment comparable to having a glass or so of wine or beer. Another hallmark of the kava experience is noticeable numbing of the mouth immediately after downing a kava brew; experienced drinkers recognize this effect as a sign the drink has been properly prepared.

Many kava drinkers attest that kava makes a wonderful drink for relaxing at the end of the day because it tends to make problems and worries seem distant and less important. Popular support for kava as a stress-buster is backed up by clinical evidence that kava works as well as certain anti-anxiety medications in treating people with general anxiety disorder. Rather than getting someone “high”, kava can offer users a relaxing break from everyday concerns, and enhance their enjoyment of the environment and people around them. Kava also promotes quicker sleep onset when taken at night and contributes to a deeper, more restful quality of sleep.

Kava kava species are not a monolith when it comes to their effects on the body. Like most psychoactive herbs, different strains of kava— combined with your own unique set and setting— will produce different subjective sensations, some of which could reasonably be called a “kava high”. While all strains of kava tend to be relaxing, noble varieties of kava are often distinguished by their different psychological effects when ingested. Some strains of kava will make you giddy and sociable, while others promote calm and sedation. Some might induce a state of introspection suitable for solitary meditation. There’s even one strain of kava from Hawai’i, formerly grown exclusively for royalty, that’s reported to induce feelings of the sacred.

When you ask, “Does kava kava get you high?”, the answer partly depends on the lens through which you perceive the effect it has on you. Kava most commonly induces feelings of relaxation and euphoria which equate to an enjoyable high for many users. Some of the less-common but intriguing effects of kava consumption include increased sense of humor; feelings of lightness or floating; increased appreciation for music; and a mild alteration in visual perception that makes objects in motion seem to move slower than usual. Finally, many people have attested to experiencing more vivid and sometimes highly realistic dreams after an evening spent indulging in kava.

Can kava get you high? The answer largely depends on your attitude and intentionality when you partake of kava. While kava won’t necessarily take you elsewhere (with perhaps the exception of kava-induced vivid dreams), it certainly has the power to make your current environment more engaging and enjoyable.

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