Why Does Kava Cause Headaches? (And How to Prevent Them)

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illustration of a Polynesian guy having headaches

Any pharmacologically active herb or substance brings some risk for side effects — kava is no exception.

Headaches are a minor but frustrating side effect that can happen with long-term or heavy kava use.

Learn what causes this unwanted side effect, what to do if it happens to you, and how to avoid it in the future.

Can Kava Cause Headaches?

Many people use kava (Piper methysticum) to alleviate migraine or cluster headaches — especially headaches caused by muscle tension in the neck or temples.

However, in rare cases, kava can cause a headache. This can happen randomly but is much more common in people who drink kava often (more than five times per week) or those who use very high doses of kava.

Kava concentrates are much more likely to cause headaches than kava powder, tinctures, or capsules.

Certain strains of kava are also much more likely to lead to headaches. It’s a common side effect when using tudei cultivars of kava. The headaches from these strains can range from mild to severe and may last up to three days.

Why Does Kava Cause Headaches?

There are several reasons why kava can lead to a headache. The most common is dehydration, but other causes include high DHK or DHM concentrations (headache-inducing kavalactones) and fatigue-related headaches.

People who drink kava for long periods of time can also form some dependency — which can cause headaches when the effects of kava start to wear off.

1. Dehydration (Most Common Cause)

When people drink kava, they often forget to drink water alongside their kava and may go several hours without a glass of water.

Kava is a diuretic, which means it stimulates the kidneys to remove fluid from the blood more quickly. The combined effects of less fluid intake mixed with faster fluid loss is likely to lead to dehydration-related headaches.

This type of headache is best described as a “low-grade, dull, achy pain in the lower back part of the head — sometimes spanning up to the top of the head.

The best way to avoid headaches from dehydration is to make sure you’re drinking water between kava shells or eat fruit that contains high water content — such as pineapples, mangos, or watermelon.

Drinking water will make dehydration headaches go away within about 30 minutes or so.

2. Tudei Kava

DHK (dihydrokavain) and DHM (dihydromethysticin) are two of the six primary kavalactones in the kava plant. These compounds are responsible for the characteristic effect profiles of the plant.

Kava strains that contain high concentrations of these two compounds are the most likely to cause headaches.

Tudei kava (Piper wichmanni) is especially high in these compounds and is the most likely to cause headaches and other side effects. These kavalactones have a long half-life, and the side effects can remain up to two days long.

Even some noble kava strains contain high concentrations of DHK and DHM — but none of them are popular outside Vanuatu or Fiji. It’s hard to find these strains online because of their heightened risk of side effects.

A few examples of high DHK & DKM noble kava include:

  • Hina leka
  • Oahu 242
  • Huli kata loa
  • Oahu 238
  • Malogro
  • Ume
  • Kau pel
  • Isa
  • Sipaia
  • Pirimerei
  • Tangurlava
  • Tabal

The easiest way to avoid DHK or DMH-induced headaches is to avoid using any tudei kava strains and opt for noble kava only. These strains are much less likely to result in side effects.

If you’re experiencing headaches after drinking tudei kava, there are a few things you can do to shorten the duration of the headache, but you will still need to wait for the effects to wear off naturally.

How to alleviate kava headaches after drinking tudei kava:

  • Take a B vitamin complex supplement
  • Take a magnesium supplement
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Avoid looking at television, computer, or phone screens for very long
  • Get lots of rest

The headaches from tudei kava can last several hours, if not a couple of days.

3. Kava Dependency

Long-term, frequent kava consumption can lead to dependency. This happens when someone takes so much kava; the body starts to adjust to counteract its effects.

When someone is dependent on kava, they may start to experience side effects when the kava wears off.

Kava dependency takes a very long time and is easily prevented by taking scheduled breaks (tolerance breaks).

Related: Is Kava Addictive?

One of the more common symptoms of kava dependency is headaches, as well as insomnia and anxiousness.

What’s happening here is the body is adjusting to the GABAergic effects of the kava. Neurons will start to hide GABA receptors to offset the high GABA activity caused by the kavalactones.

When kava wears off, the balance shifts, and we are no longer able to activate these receptors effectively — leading to side effects like anxiousness, difficulty sleeping, muscle tension, and headaches.

If you’re experiencing headaches when kava wears off (rather than as it takes effect), you may be experiencing side effects of kava dependency. This headache can last a few hours or a few days but will go away as the body reverses tolerance to the kavalactones. Prevent this from happening in the future by taking scheduled breaks from kava.

You shouldn’t use kava every day; make sure to limit your use to just a few times per week or take periodic breaks where you don’t use kava for a week or two at a time.

4. Negative Drug Interactions

Kava can also lead to headaches if mixed with certain medications or herbs.

For example, it’s common for people to experience headaches when using both kava and benzodiazepines (not recommended) or other GABAergic herbs like valerian or passionflower.

Diuretic medications or herbs can also lead to an increased risk of headaches by causing dehydration.

You should never use kava with antidepressants, antipsychotics, muscle relaxants, anti-anxiety medications, or sedatives — all of these classes of drugs are highly likely to cause negative interactions with kava — including, but not limited to headaches.

How to Prevent Kava Headaches

Kava headaches are annoying, to say the least. They rarely cause more than a dull, low-grade headache, but the effects can persist for several hours or days (in some circumstances).

Here are several steps you can take to minimize your chances of experiencing kava-induced headaches:

  1. Drink plenty of water while you’re using kava products — aim for 4 L of water per day
  2. Avoid drinking kava every day — take tolerance breaks every few days to prevent tolerance
  3. Only use noble kava strains — tudei kava is very likely to cause long-lasting headaches
  4. Take B complex vitamins and magnesium if you’re susceptible to headaches
  5. Don’t mix kava with alcohol, medications, or other GABAergic supplements
  6. Avoid using kava concentrates — this form of kava is the most likely to cause headaches

Is Kava Dangerous?

Kava is not a dangerous herb. Numerous studies have confirmed the use of noble kava is not likely to lead to any major side effects, even if used in very high doses.

Kava also has a long history of use in the South Pacific Islands. Ethnobotanical studies have reported that on some islands, 80% of adult men and 20% of adult women drink large amounts of kava on a daily basis [1]. In some places, the average dose of kava is nearly 50 times the recommended dose of 10-50 mg per day (or 140-300 mg equivalent).

A health risk assessment of kava conducted by Food Standards Australia & New Zealand reported the lethal dose in animals is roughly 1000 mg of kavalactones per kg.

This is several hundred times the high-end of the dosage range for kava. It’s very difficult to consume this much kava without injecting the concentrated kavalactones. You would need to drink the equivalent of around 500–1000 grams of kava powder to reach this dose.

Anybody who tries to drink this much kava will feel nauseous and probably fall asleep long before ever reaching a dangerous dose.

Other Side Effects of Kava

Headaches aren’t the only potential side effect from kava, nor is it the most common.

The most common side effect when drinking the plant is nausea — this is the universal sign you’ve consumed too much. It’s most common in tudei strains but can also happen with noble kava, kava concentrates, or kava capsules.

Other side effects include kava dermopathy (a rare skin condition correlated with excessive kava use), red eyes, dizziness, or facial puffiness.

All the potential side effects of kava may include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Enlarged liver
  • Dermopathy
  • Fatigue
  • Indigestion
  • Lightheadedness
  • Facial puffiness
  • Visual disturbances

Can Kava Help Treat Migraine Headaches?

While it’s true that kava can cause headaches, it’s also a popular treatment for migraine or tension headaches.

Kava is a powerful muscle relaxant, GABAergic, and dopaminergic — all of which are common methods of treating headaches.

Kava is most effective for alleviating tension headaches caused by sore muscles in the neck or temples. The active ingredients force the muscles to relax, alleviating the resulting headache.

Another common cause of headaches are spasms in the vascular system in the brain. This is one of the main theories for what causes migraine headaches. Kava may work by causing the arteries to relax and stop contracting — thus alleviating the migraine.

Whether kava will work for your headache or not is highly dependent. It’s not guaranteed to work for everybody because no headache is exactly alike. It works great for some people and not so great for others — the only way to know for sure is to try it yourself.

People who use kava for their headaches often find strains that contain high concentrations of kavain or DMY (desmethoxyyangonin) work the best for alleviating their headache.

Some popular strains that contain both of these kavalactones include Vulu Waka (heavy kava from Fiji) or Loa Waka (balanced kava from Fiji).

Key Takeaways: Does Kava Cause Headaches?

Kava can cause headaches, but this side effect is rare. In most cases, the headache is reported as being dull or low-grade. It’s more annoying than it is painful, and it’s rarely bad enough that it interferes with your ability to socialize or work.

Some strains of kava — notably the tudei varieties — can cause more severe headaches. Tudei-kava headaches can last several hours or even days.

The best way to prevent kava-related headaches altogether is to make sure you’re always ordering noble kava, avoid using very high doses, drink plenty of water while you’re consuming kava, avoid mixing kava with medications and take periodic breaks to prevent kava tolerance formation.

References

  1. Lebot, V., Merlin, M., & Lindstrom, L. (1997). Kava: The Pacific Elixir: The definitive guide to its ethnobotany, history, and chemistry. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co.
  2. Bilia, A. R., Gallori, S., & Vincieri, F. F. (2002). Kava-kava and anxiety: growing knowledge about the efficacy and safety. Life Sciences, 70(22), 2581-2597.

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