Kratom and kava are both botanicals that are commonly used in regional cultures as plant-based supplements for their various desired effects. While the two plants have many similarities, including many of the effects and benefits attributed to them by traditional local users, they are not the same thing, and each carries unique features and active components. This article will not only define each plant but will discuss important aspects of their use; pertaining to legality and availability, as well as the reported benefits and risks associated with their individual and combined use.
What Is Kratom?
Kratom is a botanical harvested from Mitragyna speciosa, a species in the same family as coffee plants. It isa tropical tree native to Southeast Asia. In the regions where kratom is a native plant, the herb derived from the leaves of the plant has hundreds of years of recorded use by local and especially rural populations. Traditional uses range from brewing it into a tea for social and recreational drinking, to using it to fight fatigue, as well as in certain religious functions. While kratom is relatively new to users outside of its native region of cultivation, it has quickly grown in popularity as a botanical, and research into its potential applications or benefits is ongoing.
What Is Kava?
Kava is a botanical harvested from Piper methysticum, a member of the nightshade family, and is native to Western Pacific Islands including Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. The roots of the plant have played a significant cultural role in traditional medicine for spiritual practices, relaxation, and to ceremoniously mark important life events. Similarly to kratom, many beneficial effects are attributed to kava by traditional and regional users, though modern medical research has yet to fully vet or verify these claims or approve its use to treat any condition.
Effects, Benefits, and Risks
While both botanicals have a similar list of traditional uses both recreationally and for relieving common complaints, neither plant has received substantial research or clinical trials that would allow for them to be approved for clinical use of any kind. What little research has been performed indicates that they have very different respective makeups and active components that may be responsible for their purported effects.
Research on the pharmacology of kratom shows that the leaves of kratom naturally produce many different active components, most notably the alkaloids mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. Based on a combination of surveys from active users, studies of indigenous use, and new research, these alkaloids have been implicated in producing a range of effects that are the subject of ongoing research.
The benefits associated with kratom include:
Risks and Safety Concerns:
Just as the benefits and potential applications are still the subjects of academic research, the safety of kratom use is still under scrutiny. A survey of active kratom users conducted by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine investigated both why people use kratom, and what types of side effects or undesirable effects they experienced while using kratom. Of those who experienced any side effects (roughly a third of all respondents), 19% characterized the effects as mild, wearing off within a day or less; only 1.9% experienced severe side effects (for which they sought treatment). Undesirable side-effects of kratom use may include:
- Digestive distress or upset stomach
- Withdrawal symptoms, including:
There is not adequate research to indicate whether kratom has addictive potential or not. According to the Johns Hopkins survey, fewer than 3% of respondents met the criteria for moderate or severe substance use disorder. However, other research has concluded “no documented threat to public health that would appear to warrant emergency scheduling of the products,” and that treating kratom the same way as drugs with known addictive potential would prevent adequate research from being performed.
Pharmacology: Studies on the therapeutic potential of kava find that the active ingredients called kavalactones, react with the limbic system in the brain associated with emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation.
Similar to kratom, there is not yet sufficient research into kava’s active pathways to know exactly what it can or cannot do. Research to date has been focused on exploring the following purported effects of kava:
Risks and Safety Concerns:
The full range of safety concerns associated with kava requires further clinical research, but trials exploring its use have concluded that kava carries a severe risk of liver damage. The exact reasons for this risk are not yet fully understood. Additional risks and side effects associated with kava use include:
- Skin rash and other dermatologic complaints
- Adverse cognitive effects
Preparation and Consumption
The preparation and consumption of kava and kratom are very similar. Most often kava and kratom are available in capsules and powder form, but may also be available in the unadulterated form of full leave or root. Both botanicals may be processed into tinctures, oils, or resins that may offer higher potency per dosage. The various ways of taking kratom and kava often include managing the dosage for long term benefit as well as finding a method that is suited to the user’s personal needs. Common methods of preparation for consumption may include:
- Adding the botanical to food or drink via powder or tincture or raw product
- Brewing the botanical into a tea
- Taking the botanical in capsule form
- Chewing a raw form of the botanical
- Smoking the botanical
Legality and Availability
While both plants are touted for their use as a botanical supplement, there are controversies and differences regarding their production, use, and sales.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has listed Kratom as a Drug and Chemical of Concern for its associations with addiction and potential impact on the liver. Currently, Kratom is not controlled under the Controlled Substance Act and is regulated at the state level. Some states may enact prohibitions against the possession and use of kratom. The Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings for consumers and distributors in regards to kratom use and sales. The FDA is currently evaluating kratom and encouraging more research to better understand the safety of use, specifically concerning the reaction of kratom with other drugs. Kratom is available for purchase at kratom specialty shops, kratom shops online, head shops and tobacco shops, and some gas stations.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, kava is not a controlled substance in the U.S., though there are regulatory controls in other countries in regards to concern over liver toxicity. The Food and Drug Administration has issued a consumer advisory for supplements containing kava due to liver-related injuries and adverse events. Kava is available for purchase online and in many grocery and vitamin stores.
Can I Mix Kratom and Kava?
The two botanicals are reputed to have multiple overlapping benefits; however, research into their potential interactions has not yet been completed conclusively. With no clearly defined research on the matter, it’s best to avoid mixing kava and kratom entirely. Anecdotally, users report taking kratom and kava together for their combined benefit, though it should be done in moderation as the hepatotoxicity of kratom and kava are still being studied for possible liver damage that could be amplified by combined use. As kava has a clearly established risk of liver damage, those with any known liver conditions or taking medication that affects the liver should avoid using kava.
Kava and kratom are both botanicals with a long history of use by those indigenous to areas where the source plants grow naturally. Both have only recently been discovered and embraced as botanicals by broader populations, and while their use has quickly grown, neither herb has undergone the rigorous study or clinical trials necessary to demonstrate their full therapeutic potential or possible risks associated with use.