On the surface level, kava and kratom have a lot of similarities. They’re both traditional herbal supplements with a powerful set of effects on both the mind and body.
When you look a bit deeper, it quickly becomes evident that these two herbs are in fact very different from each other.
In this article, we’ll explore exactly what kava and kratom are, how they’re similar, and how they differ from each other. We’ll also cover where each of these traditional herbs excels, and where they fall short.
We even provide some advice if you’re considering mixing the two together for a combined effect.
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
What is Kava?
Kava is a tropical herb with potent calming effects on the central nervous system (more on this later).
Kava is an interesting plant because it’s one of the only plants on earth that doesn’t produce any seeds.
Yes, you heard that right. The most common species of kava (Piper methysticum) lost the ability to produce seeds a long time ago and have been relying on humans to keep it alive for generations.
On the pacific islands where the plant grows, indigenous cultures have been keeping the plant alive by taking cuttings of the roots and planting them on new islands. In effect, all kava has the same genetic profile because of this. They’re all essentially copies of the same plant.
But it gets even weirder.
Because we’ve been doing this for so long, and kava has spread to so many distant islands through early human colonization — there’s actually a lot of epigenetic differences in kava plants.
What does this mean?
Despite all kava being taken as a clone from another plant, the genes of this plant have been forced to change in one area to another. You can find kava with long slender stocks and very euphoric (heady) effects — as well as short thick stocks and very sedative (heavy) effect profiles (and everything in between).
The differences of these different kava types — called “strains” — aren’t in the genetic structure of the plant, but in which of these genes become active or not (a concept called epigenetics).
The result of all of this is that there are now many different strains of kava available — each with their own unique set of effects.
Despite the differences, all kava still has the same basic effect profile — stress-reduction, muscle relaxation, mood enhancement, and sleep support.
What is Kratom?
Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is another tropical plant with a rich history of use in the regions it originates from (Southeast Asia).
Unlike kava, kratom produces seeds like normal. However, much like kava, you can find different strains of kratom — each with their own unique effects on the body.
Classifying kratom is no easy task — there are many different systems people use to differentiate one kratom from the next. There are four main classifications people use to differentiate kratom in order to estimate the effect profile:
- White vein kratom — more sedative than stimulant
- Red vein kratom — more stimulating than sedative
- Green vein kratom — the middle ground between white and red
- Yellow vein kratom — a term used to describe a combination of different kratoms
These classifications are just a rule of thumb, and there are plenty of exceptions to the rules — which is why the classification of kratom is so difficult.
All kratom strains have the same underlying effects of reducing pain. In lower doses, kratom is a mild stimulant, much like coffee or tobacco. But in higher doses, these effects flip — resulting in much more sedative effects.
However, the balance between being stimulating, and sedative can vary a lot. Some strains have much higher stimulating effects, which makes them great for use at work, school, or during the day.
Other strains are much more sedative, making them better for sleep and stress.
Almost all kratom strains are useful for pain reduction.
Comparing Kava & Kratom: What’s The Difference?
Both kava and kratom have mild stimulating effects at low doses, and sedative and euphoric effects at high doses — but they achieve this through completely separate means.
In this section, we’ll cover what makes kava and kratom similar, and how they’re different from each other.
Summary Comparison: Kava vs. Kratom
|Metrics||Kava (Piper methysticum)||Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa)|
|Low-Dose Effects||• Euphoria
• Enhanced creativity
• Mild stimulation
|• Increased energy levels
• Mild agitation
|High-Dose Effects||• Muscle relaxation
• Release of anxiety
• Sedation & sleep
|• Pain reduction
• Stress reduction
• Sedation & sleep
|Origin||• Pacific Islands (Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, etc.)||• Southeast Asia (Thailand, Borneo, Indonesia, etc.)|
|Active Constituents||• Kavalactones||• Mitragynine
|• Opioid agonist
|Preparation||• Fresh or dried powdered leaves mixed into water||• Raw leaves chewed
• Dried leaf powder mixed with water
1. Effect Profile
Kava and kratom share some similarities in their effects. Both have a calming effect, making them useful for supporting sleep, anxiety, and muscle tension.
But there are also some key differences.
Kava is much better for symptoms like stress, anxiety, and muscle tension, as it works through a system that controls the response to stress in the body. Kratom, on the other hand, is much better for pain as it works through the part of the nervous system tasked with regulating pain transmission.
Traditional uses of these herbs differ as well. Kratom was used by laborers to prevent exhaustion, and reduce joint and back pain while they worked. Kava was instead used during ceremonies for connecting with dead ancestors, and for socializing with friends and family.
In the modern world, the key difference between the two is that kratom is better if you’re in pain, while kava is going to be better for anxiety or sleep disturbances. Kava is also widely considered the safer option if using the herbs long-term.
Both kava and kratom are tropical plants — but they come from completely separate parts of the world.
Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a member of the coffee family (Rubiaceae) and originates from Southeast Asia — particularly places like Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Kava (Piper methysticum) is instead a member of the pepper family (Piperaceae), closely related to common herbs like black pepper. You’ll find kava growing on remote islands in the Pacific ocean like Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, Hawaii, and Samoa.
For those of you who want the nitty-gritty about how kava and kratom are different on a biochemical level, let’s cover the two key differences between these two plants.
First of all, the active ingredients in kava are referred to as kavalactones — there are technically many different kavalactones in the plant, but just six of them form about 90% of the total kavalactone content and make up the majority of kavas effect profile.
Kratom has two main active ingredients — mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. Unlike kava, the compounds in kratom are classified as alkaloids. Alkaloids are notorious for their potent effects on humans — think about such compounds as caffeine from coffee, nicotine from tobacco, or cocaine from the coca plant.
So let’s get into the differences between these compounds on human physiology.
A) Kava Works Through the GABA Receptors
Each of the kavalactones in kava has its own effect on the body — but the overall effect of these compounds relies heavily on their interaction with GABA.
The GABA system is a key element of the nervous system that serves as the “brake pedal” for neurological activity. It slows the transmission of electrical signals down the nerves to reduce states of hyperactivity like anxiety, stress, and muscle spasms.
The body uses GABA to get us out of a “fight or flight” stress response and promote rest, recovery, and digestion.
Kava works through this system by attaching to the GABA receptors to make them more receptive to the GABA already in our system. This promotes the feeling of calmness and tranquility and significantly dampens racing thoughts or other forms of hyperactivity.
This is why kava is so good for supporting sleep disturbances, anxiety, and stress.
One kavalactone in particular — desmethoxyyangonin — also promotes the release of dopamine in the brain. This effect results in feelings of euphoria and when combined with intense muscle relaxation can make users feel like they’re “floating”.
B) Kratom Works Through the Opioid Receptors
Much like kava, each of the two primary alkaloids in kratom have slightly different effect profiles. They work on a number of different systems, but the primary target is the opioid system.
Our opioid system can be found in the spinal cord and brain and is tasked with regulating the intensity of pain signals that travel from the body to the brain. The more we activate the opioid receptors, the less pain we experience.
This is why kratom is so popular among people that experience pain as a key element of their symptom picture.
The opioid receptors have other roles in the body as well. They’re especially abundant in a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens — a region heavily involved with the release of dopamine to other areas of the brain. When the opioid receptors in the region are activated, it causes a release of dopamine — resulting in feelings of euphoria.
Can I Mix Kava & Kratom?
Mixing herbs together can yield unexpected results, so caution is advised to anybody interested in doing this.
However, we can make some generalizations we can make about the effects of combining the two together.
Since kava and kratom share similar effects, mixing them together tends to make the effects of each even stronger. This is a concept called synergy.
A lot of people enjoy mixing kava with kratom to get the best of both worlds. Usually, this mix is predominantly kava since the dose of kava is larger than the dose of kratom.
I like mixing about 10% kratom with my kava if I’m experiencing pain — such as during the first few weeks after I broke my ankle.
The most difficult part of mixing kava and kratom is the different methods of preparation. Kava is mixed into the water using a strainer to keep out the necessary fibers from the brew. Kratom powder, on the other hand, is just mixed into water whole.
The solution to this is simple.
Since the dose for kava is much higher than the dose for kratom, it’s better to mix the kava first, and then add the kratom to the brew after it’s complete.
How to Mix Kava With Kratom
Start by making the kava first as you normally would. Mix the dose of kava you want to use with the water through a strainer for 10–15 minutes. Once the kava is ready, add the kratom and stir it in.
Usually, you’ll want to keep the dose of kratom at around 10–20% of the total dose, but there are many different opinions on this.
As an example, if you would normally use 10 grams of kava, use about 8 instead, with the final 2 grams being kratom.
For higher doses, like 40 grams of kava, you can mix in about 4 grams of kratom.
Always start with a much lower dose than you normally would for both kava and kratom when mixing — this is because the effects tend to amplify each other, and can become much stronger than you might anticipate.
Be smart. Start low and go slow. Build up the dose gradually over time as you get used to the combination. Never exceed 60 grams of kava or 8 grams of kratom for any reason.
Is Kava or Kratom Addictive?
The biggest question people have when it comes to both kava and kratom is whether or not these herbs are addictive.
This question comes from the effect profile of the herbs and their mechanism of action:
- Kava works through GABA receptors — which is also the mechanism highly addictive drugs like benzodiazepines exert their effects.
- Kratom works through the opioid receptors — which is what addictive drugs like morphine or Oxycontin work through as well.
When you look at these effects from the top-down, it’s easy to assume the herbs are going to be addictive just like their pharmaceutical counterparts.
But it’s not that simple.
Herbs like kava and kratom are strong but don’t hold a candle next to the potency of a pharmaceutical. They also have many other effects on the body than just the two receptors mentioned above that contribute to their overall effects. Having multiple effects on the body means we’re significantly less likely to develop tolerance and addiction.
The reason pharmaceutical drugs are so addictive is because they target and activate specific receptors with the precision of a Navy Seals sniper — little else in the body is directly affected. It doesn’t take long at all for the body to make changes to resist the effects of the drug on that specific receptor.
How Does Addiction Work?
The body always wants to maintain an even balance. When we frequently take in substances that change the chemical balance of the body, it starts making changes to account for the effects of that substance. This is called tolerance.
Once we’ve become tolerant to a substance, we rely on having at least some of it in our system to maintain balance in the body. As soon as we don’t have any in the body (we stop taking the substance), we fall out of balance again as the body overcompensates. This causes withdrawal symptoms.
Withdrawal can be very uncomfortable and will cause us to crave more of the substance we’re tolerant to in order to regain balance and make the effects go away.
Why Pharmaceuticals Are So Much More Addictive Than Herbs
Addiction is a complicated process, involving a change in the number or function of a particular receptor. In order to become addicted to something, we need to frequently force chemical changes on these receptors.
With pharmaceuticals, the hyper-targeted effects to a small handful of receptors make it easy for the body to adapt these specific receptors in response. Many opioid, GABA, dopamine, and serotonergic medications are known to be highly addictive.
Ultimately, we don’t see this with herbs to nearly the same extent despite having very similar receptor targets. While it’s still possible for plants to form tolerance in the body, it doesn’t happen to nearly the same extent as pharmaceuticals. Primarily because of their more widespread effects (they don’t just target one specific receptor).
Is it possible to become addicted to kava or kratom?
In theory, yes.
Is kratom or kava addiction a major problem around the world?
Addiction to kava and kratom can be compared to coffee addiction. Yes, it’s possible we’ll start to crave the effects of the herb if we go without — but this only lasts a few days before we return completely to normal. Additionally, it takes a very long time, and many repeated doses to show any signs of tolerance or addiction at all.
The best way to ensure you don’t become addicted to something is simply to take it in moderation. Use your kava or kratom, but also take time without using them. A lot of people using these herbs on a regular basis will either do 3 days with the herb, one without — or three weeks with the herb, one week without.
The key is to prevent the body from getting too used to the effects of the plant.
Summing it All up: Kava vs. Kratom
Kava and kratom share many similarities, but rely on completely different mechanisms — kava relies on the GABA system, while kratom uses the opioid system to provide its effects.
This difference makes kava better for anxiety and muscle tension, and kratom better for pain management.
Both of these herbs also have different effects depending on the dose you take.
Small doses of kava have mild mood-enhancing effects and can be used to support creativity and focus.
Small doses of kratom have much more stimulating effects on the body and were even traditionally used to increase energy by laborers in Southeast Asia.
In larger doses, both kava and kratom are euphoric and sedative.
A lot of people are mixing kava and kratom together to get the best of both worlds. While there’s no direct reason why this should be avoided, it’s important you take it slow until you know how the combination will affect your body individually.