Is Kava Addictive? Signs & Symptoms of Kava Dependency

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Illustration of a Polynesian guy thinking about kava

Kava (Piper methysticum) is not inherently addictive the way cocaine or heroin are. However, its ability to provide a temporary release from stress and anxiety can become habit-forming over time.

When someone is addicted to something, they seek it out compulsively despite clear negative implications on their health, finances, or relationships.

The important question to ask yourself here is “why” you’re using kava.

Is kava providing a net positive on your mental health? Or is it causing other forms of grief in exchange for a fleeting release of life stress?

Is Kava Addictive?

Any substance or activity that offers relief from stress, pain, or discomfort can be addictive.

Kava is a powerful anxiolytic — which means it can offer people tormented with stress, depression, and anxiety a (temporary) source of relief.

When people use substances like kava as a crutch for the stresses they face each day — they may become addicted to using it. The same can be said for any substance or activity. This is why things like gambling, sex, or shopping can become addictive too.

Kava itself isn’t classically addictive the way we normally think of addictive substances. It doesn’t cause withdrawal symptoms, and it doesn’t cause tolerance unless used for a very long time.

In fact, kava has what’s called “reverse tolerance,” — which means it gets stronger the more often you use it, rather than weaker.

Nobody is out on the streets selling all their belongings to be able to feed their addiction to kava. It’s just not that kind of substance.

But it is possible for someone to become too reliant on kava to the point where it poses clear negative effects on other aspects of one’s life.

What Are the Signs of Kava Addiction?

The core signal of any addiction is the compulsion to use something despite the negative consequences of using it.

Ask yourself “why” you’re using kava and what impact it’s having on your life.

Do you feel like you need kava in order to function properly? Is it burning through your finances, affecting your ability to work or hold down a job, or interfering with your relationships?

The answer to this question is the fundamental difference between addiction and casual use.

The goal of using herbs like kava is to enhance your life — not to use it as a crutch.

Here are some common signs of addiction to consider:

  1. Hiding your kava use from friends & family
  2. Lying about your habits around kava
  3. Constantly thinking about kava
  4. Excessive tolerance to kava (doses exceeding 80 g of kava)
  5. Extreme mood changes
  6. Constant fatigue & lethargy
  7. Loss of interest in non-kava-related activities

Stages of Kava Addiction

Addiction isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes a long time for addiction to form, and the line separating “addicted” and “not addicted” is sometimes fuzzy.

In general, there are four stages of addiction — experimentation, regular use, psychological dependence, and physical dependence. Let’s cover each one in more detail and how kava is affected.

Stage 1: Experimentation

This is the stage where you’re trying something new for the first time. Maybe you heard from a friend that kava has a nice relaxing vibe to it, or you’ve been poking around Kava Guides and think kava looks fun.

There’s nothing wrong with experimentation. Kava isn’t a dangerous substance and is not going to make someone instantly addicted.

Stage 2: Regular Use

This is the stage most kava drinkers can be placed in. It involves using kava regularly, every couple of days or weeks, depending on your individual situation.

It’s often used socially, while at work, or in the evenings before bed.

Most people don’t evolve beyond this stage.

Stage 3: Psychological Dependence

This is the first stage of a true addiction to kava. Psychological dependence involves an emotional compulsion to take a substance in order to function optimally.

In this stage, people believe they need the kava in order to function.

A common cause of this is people who have crippling social anxiety who take kava in order to be able to interact with the outside world.

You’re not physically dependent, which means if you stop taking kava, there won’t be any physical consequences or withdrawal — but mentally, you believe you need the substance to operate.

Stage 4: Physical Dependence

This is the stage most people think of when talking about addiction. The body itself becomes reliant on the substance in order to maintain balance. As soon as it wears off, the body falls out of balance — resulting in symptoms associated with withdrawal.

Kava can eventually reach this point after years of heavy, daily use. Even in the worst cases, kava rarely leads to anything more than mild withdrawal that clears up within a few days of quitting.

When someone is physically and psychologically dependent on something, it becomes exponentially more difficult to quit.

How Long Does it Take To Get Addicted To Kava?

It takes a very long time to become physically addicted to kava, but someone may start to over-rely on it after just a few weeks of use.

Everybody is different and is going to have a different reaction to kava after taking it. People who are highly anxious are the most at-risk of becoming reliant on kava for maintaining a stable baseline.

Most people feel more relaxed and calm while drinking kava but don’t feel as though they need the kava to operate properly. It will take a very long time for these people to reach a stage that can be deemed addicted when it comes to kava.

What Are the Side Effects of Kava Addiction?

It’s not a good idea to use high doses of kava every day. While it’s true that kava isn’t a dangerous herb, there are some side effects that can happen — all of which become more likely and more severe with higher doses or constant long-term use.

In smaller doses, kava produces very mild side effects. The most common are nausea, but headaches, dizziness, or fatigue have also been reported. These effects clear up when the effects of kava wear off.

Long-term side effects are a different picture altogether. The more kava you drink, the greater the strain on the body. The active ingredients can build up in the skin, liver, or other tissues of the body if there isn’t enough time between doses to clear them out.

The main side effect of heavy kava use is a condition called kava dermopathy (kanikani). This condition is well-known in communities that drink particularly large amounts of kava, such as Fiji or Vanuatu.

Kava dermopathy involves the formation of dry, scaly patches of skin on the arms and torso. This condition will go away as soon as kava consumption is ceased.

The long-term side effects of constant, heavy kava use may include:

  • Enlarged liver
  • Increased red blood cell count
  • Kava dermopathy (scaly skin)
  • Lowered serum protein (less protein in the blood)
  • Lymphocytopenia (low lymphocyte levels)
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Thrombocytopenia (lower blood plasma levels)

The True Cause of Addiction Isn’t What You Think

Addiction is not a disease you inherit in life — it’s a symptom of life stress.

People who use drugs compulsively take them as a way to temporarily escape an uncomfortable reality. This could be chronic unrelenting pain from an injury or illness, crippling anxiety or depression from past trauma, or a poor sense of self-worth.

The true desire of human beings is to feel happy. When we’re in a place where we can’t achieve this on our own, we seek out other means of accomplishing it.

This can involve extreme sports, shopping, risky sexual encounters, gambling, or drugs.

Nobody chooses to be addicted to drugs, and nobody is born a drug addict. The notion that some people are born with brain chemistry that makes them susceptible to drug addiction is categorically incorrect.

Children who are born addicted to crack are easily weaned off. They have no attachment to the drug the way an adult crack addict is so emotionally attached they can’t effectively wean themselves off.

Addiction extends beyond physical dependency. It’s rooted deep within our innate desire to feel content and happy in life.

People who have no other way of providing this feeling of happiness, even if for just a fleeting moment, will seek it out at any cost.

How Kava Works

The active ingredients in kava are a class of pyrones called kavalactones. There are more than a dozen of them, but the vast majority of the kavalactone content is made up of six primary compounds.

Each kavalactone interacts with different receptors in the brain. The primary action is on the GABA system, but dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine are also affected.

The effects of a given kava strain are the sum of all these parts working together. Some kava is more sedative because it has more of the sedative kavalactones; others are more euphoric.

Kava vs. Benzodiazepines

Kava is often considered “nature’s Xanax” because a lot of the effects of these substances overlap. Benzos are known to be highly addictive. Users can become physically dependent on Xanax in just a couple of weeks.

To make matters worse, benzo withdrawal is one of the only forms of withdrawal that can actually be fatal (the other one is alcohol).

So if kava and benzodiazepines are so similar, how come kava isn’t nearly as addictive as this common class of anxiety medications?

The answer is complicated.

Herbs like kava contain hundreds of different chemicals — each one affecting the body differently. While it’s true that many of the active ingredients work the same way as Xanax, there are many more that work on entirely different neurotransmitters. Some interact with dopamine, others target serotonin receptors, and much more.

Benzodiazepines are GABAergics — which means they enhance the binding ability of a neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA. They do this very effectively and precisely — targeting virtually no other receptors in the body.

By affecting just one receptor, it’s easy for the body to build dependence because it only needs to change one receptor type to maintain balance.

This is much more difficult for kava because there are dozens of different receptors that may be affected. It takes longer to become dependent on kava, and dependency is much less severe overall.

What to Do If You’re Addicted to Kava

Fortunately, addiction to kava is much less severe than other substances. Even with physical dependence, withdrawal symptoms from kava are mild — mainly consisting of difficulty sleeping, feelings of anxiety, and some muscle tension.

This is a far cry from the severe anxiety, seizures, and migraine headaches involved with benzodiazepine withdrawal.

Here are some steps you can take or resources to check out if you’re addicted to kava:

1. Visit a Support Group

Getting support from others is one of the best ways to stay motivated when it comes to quitting any substance. This is why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are so effective.

These groups show you that you’re not alone in your experience and that recovery is possible.

There aren’t any specific kava addiction support groups — because kava addiction is pretty rare — but there are general addiction groups you can join near where you live, as well as online.

2. Forgive Yourself

The first step to recovering from any addiction is to forgive yourself of any guilt or shame you may have around your substance abuse. This shame is only going to add fuel to the flames that cause your desire to seek out the substance.

Nobody chooses to be addicted to something — it happens over time based on the circumstances you’re faced with in life. Forgive yourself and understand that in order to move forward, you need to be compassionate and patient with yourself. Everybody makes mistakes — all we can do is learn from them and move forward.

3. Taper Down Over Time

Some people choose to quit cold turkey — which means stopping all use of the substance entirely.

This works great for some people and not so great for others.

If you’re having a hard time, try tapering down your kava use over time rather than quitting abruptly. Start by taking about 10% off your normal dose every day until it’s low enough that you can stop entirely.

4. Address The Root Cause

All addictions have a deeper root. Some form of trauma or health issue should be explored to figure out other ways of addressing it — rather than relying on substances like kava to mask them.

The main questions to ask here are “why” you were using kava. What problem did it solve for you?

For many people, kava addictions are rooted in the plant’s ability to alleviate stress. They’re living lives that are so stressful they no longer know how to cope.

Taking some time to understand the source of this stress — and finding changes that can eliminate this stress is going to give you unimaginable long-term benefits. Maybe you need to quit your job, leave a relationship that isn’t serving you, or integrate past traumatic experiences. Nobody said it’s going to be easy — but it’s by and large the best way to break free from cycles of addiction and depression.

Visit a therapist or other mental health practitioners to help bring out past memories, and integrate past traumas so they can stop eating away at you from within.

Key Takeaways: Is Kava Addictive?

Kava itself isn’t very addictive. It takes a long time of very heavy kava consumption for it to lead to physical addiction.

More commonly, people become psychologically addicted to the effects of kava. Its ability to produce a sense of euphoria and relaxation can become a crutch for people experiencing crippling bouts of depression or anxiety.

It’s important to use kava in moderation and always be conscious about exactly why they’re using it. Kava can be an incredibly useful tool for optimizing your life when used consciously and with moderation.

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