Kava plant soothes consumers


Nathan Goldsmith

SquareRut Kava Bar recently began selling kava tea on South Congress. The Polynesian-derived beverage produces feelings of numbness, relaxation and mild euphoria.

Elijah Watson

After a day filled with multiple java stops and shots, where do you go to unwind and rid yourself of liquid anxiety? A new bar in Austin has got the answer, and it’s called kava.

SquareRüt Kava Bar, a recently opened cafe on the south side of Austin, offers patrons an earthy drink for unwinding after a stressful day. Made from the root of the kava plant, the liquid’s active ingredient, kavalactone, is what gives consumers that feeling of relaxation and pleasure. The root is pounded into powder and soaked in water and cultivated for two days.

“The way [kavalactones] react to the GABA receptors in your brain are very similar to alcohol, but you can never be intoxicated,” said co-owner Tracy Moreno. “It has the reverse effect of alcohol, as far as the dependency goes. The more alcohol you drink, the more you need each time to get drunk. With kava, you won’t need as much as you continue to drink it over time.”

Derived from the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia, kava has been used as a traditional practice in Fiji, Hawaii and Melanesia.

“It’s the most respected herb in those south-sea cultures,” said Mark Blumenthal, the founder and executive director of the Austin-based nonprofit, American Botanical Council.

“The herb is given in the form of a tea to visiting dignitaries: Queen Elizabeth, President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson and The Pope were all offered kava in a ceremonial manner, as part of their welcome. That is how important it is to their culture.”

The power of kava does not stop at greeting ceremonies: It also serves as an anxiety reliever.

“It’s a skeletal muscle-relaxing herb, and that’s why there are a number of clinical trials, showing how the extract of kava is effective in states of anxiety,” Blumenthal said. Back in February 2000 the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology published a study on kava’s effectiveness for treating anxiety, in comparison to a placebo. Kava extract was found to be superior to a placebo as a treatment for anxiety.

Unlike most pharmaceutical drugs that treat anxiety, kava does not have a central nervous system depressant effect.

Simply put, you stay on the ball mentally, while the rest of your body is in a state of relaxation.

“That is why it has become a popular recreational item among young people, and why kava bars have been popping up in California and Hawaii for years,” Blumenthal said.

Moreno, along with husband Scott, are proud to be Texas’ first ever kava bar.

“We really think Austin is a great place for [kava],” Moreno said. “Surprisingly enough, we did not have to get any specific licenses to sell kava. It was pretty easy overall.”

Although kava does provide a good time for its user, there are some precautions. Aside from its earthy and pungent taste, kava can potentially slow reflexes when consumed in large quantities. “It’s basically relaxing and/or inhibiting those impulses to your skeletal muscles,” Blumenthal said.

It’s advised to not drive or operate heavy machinery if you have consumed too much kava.

Some kava preparations have also been linked to liver problems, but throughout the years, the link has dissipated.

In March 2002 the FDA advised kava users of the connection, after several reports of liver-related injuries occurred in Switzerland and Germany. “In most cases it has been used quite safely and successfully,” Blumenthal said. “But there has been some research that suggests that some poor-quality kava were associated with liver-type disease.”

A 2010 Annals of Hepatology review by Goethe University professor Rolf Teschke supported the probable contribution of “poor kava raw material” as a cause for liver failure in many documented cases, but also took note that kava root preparation could be a probable cause as well.

The Morenos make their kava fresh, but they have many different flavors, including regular, coconut milk, honey and cinnamon and chocolate. For people on the go, the bar also offers instant kava and kava strips.

Some people prefer the regular flavor because of its potency. “It’s strong, but you get used to the taste,” said freshman biology major Camilla Martin. “They also give you a few pineapple slices that act as a chaser, which helps out a lot.”

Kava is the medium between java-junkies and beer-buzzers, and like most drinks consumed for a certain effect, it needs to be consumed responsibly. “It should be done responsibly, respectfully and moderately; like all things,” Blumenthal said.

Printed on Thursday, March 22, 2012 as: Kava bar serves up relaxation in a cup