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This is Your Brain on Kava: The Chemistry of Tranquility

This is Your Brain on Kava: The Chemistry of Tranquility

Have you ever wondered why drinking leaves you feeling less anxious?  Or why your sleep has improved since you starting using kava?  Psychoactive substances interact chemically with the brain in complex ways, and that is why they produce specific effects.  Kava is no exception.  A well-informed consumer is an empowered one, and understanding the brain, and how kava effects it, can help you make informed choices when imbibing.

Neurotransmitters: The Brain’s Chemical Messengers

The brain controls our various moods, mind states, immune responses, and bodily functions through an army of chemical couriers known as neurotransmitters.  Neurons (also known as brain cells) communicate with other neurons by releasing neurotransmitters in the gap between brain cells known as a synapse.  Most neurons only produce one type of neurotransmitter.  Others will produce different neurotransmitters depending on the circumstances in a process known as “neurotransmitter switching”. Neurotransmitters serve different purposes.  For example, the neurotransmitter histamine is involved in producing allergic reactions and coordinating immune system responses to pathogens.  Understanding these chemicals is key to understanding kava’s effects.

How Kava Affects GABA

Also known as gamma-Aminobutyric acid, GABA is a neurotransmitter that inhibits neural signaling—unlike other neurotransmitters that excite neural signaling.  GABA plays a role in learning, brain development and anxiety.  When you consume kava, the naturally occurring chemicals in the drink known as kavalactones will mainly bind to GABA receptor sites in the brain, producing an anti-anxiety effect.  The kavalactones primarily responsible for this effect are kawain and dihydrokawain. Moderation is key, however.  An excess of GABA production in the brain is implicated in seizures and various other problems.  If you are new to the kava bar scene, ask your bartender for recommendations as to how much kava to consume.

Kava and Dopamine

The neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in the experience of pleasure.  It is also involved with learning, motivation, mood, and attention.  Multiple studies have found that kava prevents a decrease of dopamine by inhibiting the action of MAO, or monoamine oxidase.  This may explain kava’s euphoric effects.  It also inhibits an enzyme called MAOB from removing dopamine from the brain.  The kavalactones responsible for this effect are kavain, desmethoxyyangonin, and methysticin.

Kava and Serotonin

Are you frequently depressed or anxious?  It may be because you have low serotonin levels in your brain. Low serotonin levels in the brain are also implicated in ADHD and other disorders.  Having adequate serotonin levels in the brain is key to maintaining mental health.  Kava’s inhibiting effects on monoamine oxidase and MAOB have the same effect on serotonin as they do on dopamine.  The so-called “heady” kava strains that are consumed during the day may be especially suited for this purpose.

Come to Ohana

If you are luck enough to be in the Colorado Springs area, consider visiting Ohana Kava Bar.  Founded by Matt Clark, Ohana has two locations, one downtown and another on North Academy Boulevard.  If you have further questions about the pharmacology of kava, Matt or his friendly knowledgeable bartenders will gladly help.  Matt provides the highest quality kava at reasonable prices.