Taki MaiTaki Mai

By Zane Yoshida

During a recent debate about kava safety in Australia, Zane Yoshida, founder of Taki Mai, said:

“We definitely deserve to have kava as part of our traditional cultural practices, even in Australia…If anything, it has been a positive influence on the Fijian community, even the youth in Australia, as an alternative to alcohol.”

If the subject of kava safety crops up in the media, a debate about whether kava is a safe alternative to alcohol is usually not far away. But is this claim true?

Earlier this year in Australia, there were claims that organised gangs of Tongans were smuggling kava into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, where alcohol is banned. The federal government was even considering a ban on the kava in Australia, but fortunately this never happened.

The authorities have hopefully woken up to the fact that banning a natural product that does a lot of good in the community wasn’t the way to address the small amount of problems it causes amongst people who use it irresponsibly.  An immediate comparison with the problems that alcohol causes would show the absurdity of banning it.

Nobody would consider banning over-the-counter pain relievers because a few people misuse them and take an overdose, would they?

Imagine if a study was done to compare the relative health effects of kava against alcohol: the pros and the cons. Which do you think would come out on top?

Similarities between kava and alcohol

There are some similarities between the two substances that often lead to the question of whether kava can serve as a good replacement for alcohol.

Firstly they are both social drinks. Whereas many westerners indulge in alcoholic drinks at social gatherings, South Pacific islanders will generally gather around the kava bowl, and share thoughts, have discussions, and make decisions.

Both kava and alcohol are often taken by people who want to relax and unwind – such as after a hard day’s work, or at the weekend; both can lead to improved mood, initial feelings of euphoria, easing of tension, encouragement to “open up”, lose one’s inhibitions or shyness, and be more social.

There are also a few basic safety measures that need applying when people drink kava or alcohol. In the case of kava, the average dose found in a kava shot or supplement will not impact mental clarity or judgment; it will just make you feel relaxed. But there have been cases where driving under the influence of large doses of kava has been a safety risk. It is therefore recommended not to drive or operate heavy machinery when indulging in a lengthy kava session.

Drinking BOTH kava and alcohol and then driving is a definite no-no – as this report from New Zealand points out.

Of course, we should all know by now the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol – and the problem around the world is not merely with ‘isolated cases’; it is a major killer.

Both alcohol and kava metabolise in the liver, meaning that it should not be drunk together for fear of putting too much strain on the liver; but unless you drink a large quantity of kava, or take supplements that mix other chemicals or parts of the kava plant other than the root, the liver should be able to handle it just fine.

With alcohol too, in most healthy people the liver is extremely efficient in dealing with alcohol; but serious health problems can result from excessive consumption.

Key differences between kava and alcohol

It is said that “hate cannot exist where kava is”. While this is, of course, an idyllic view, there is a definite peaceful air around the kava bowl. That is why kava is still brought out in the South Pacific to help solve feuds between two “warring” parties. It is a peace offering and the feelings it generates are ones of relaxation, serenity, and calmness.

When drank in the traditional way, kava produces a mild calming and relaxing effect that helps bonding in social situations and family get-togethers, without affecting mental clarity.

Compare that with an average Saturday night in your local pub, bar, or club. It’s many things, but I’d bet that it’s neither serene nor calm. We have probably all seen how alcohol can lead to potentially aggressive situations as people become bolder when they have had a few drinks.

That’s not to say that the excessive kava use doesn’t lead to problems (associated relationship and family problems can result) but these are much rarer than with alcohol-associated problems.

The physical effects of taking alcohol include a reduced attention span and reaction times and, in more extreme cases, a loss of memory or comprehension, vomiting, and a loss of balance. A few reports suggest that red wine used in moderation can be beneficial for health, but in truth there is little literature extolling the health benefits of alcohol.

Also, alcohol-related diseases such as hepatitis and cirrhosis account for high numbers of deaths globally. According to the Lancet medical journal, alcohol is more dangerous than heroin or crack. The WHO’s Global status report on alcohol and health 2014 states the following:

“Globally, harmful use of alcohol causes approximately 3.3 million deaths every year (or 5.9% of all deaths), and 5.1% of the global burden of disease is attributable to alcohol consumption.

With kava, numbness of the lips and tongue results after drinking it and, when consumed in large amounts, pupil dilation, bloodshot eyes, and loss of appetite can result; but it is unlikely you will ever drink enough kava to produce this effect.

The kavalactones present in kava root are a confirmed short-term reliever of stress and anxiety and kava is frequently used in alternative medicine.

Another area of difference between alcohol and kava is in the after-effects. Alcohol “hangovers” caused by dehydration can be severe; headache, fever, vomiting and other stomach upsets are quite common. Prolonged usage of kava may make you feel a bit “hazy” the next day but it does not result in any of the severe symptoms of an alcohol hangover.

Insurance companies starting to endorse kava again

Yourlifesolution.com, a US-based insurance agency last year endorsed kava as a safe alternative to alcohol. With insurance companies tending to steer clear of kava, following the European ban a while back, this is another welcome step to bring the kava industry back to its rightful place.

It’s best to judge for yourself whether kava is a good substitute for alcohol; try it and see if you like the flavours and the effects –it can be an acquired taste, but do you remember your first taste of alcohol?


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Is Kava a Safe Alternative to Alcohol?