If you’ve been looking for an all natural solution for whatever it is that’s troubling you, you may have stumbled upon kratom and kava. Both of these plants have been used for centuries in traditional medicine, and both offer a variety of potential benefits.
But what are the similarities and differences between kratom vs kava? And which one is right for you? In this article, we’ll take a closer look at these two substances and help you decide which one is best for you.
What Is Kratom?
Kratom, also known as Mitragyna speciosa, is a tropical evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia that grows to heights of around 50 feet. The vast majority of the kratom distributed throughout the United States is harvested in Borneo, Indonesia, though it is consumed throughout the region.
Along with coffee, it’s part of the Rubiaceae family. It has been used for centuries in traditional medicine for a variety of purposes, including as a stimulant, sedative, and pain reliever.
When opium became scarce in Malaysia in the 1940s, kratom was used as a substitute, though its effects are milder. It has an extensive record of safe use in its native areas.
The active compounds in kratom are known as alkaloids, and they include mitragynine, 7-OH-mitragynine, paynantheine, speciogynine, and many more. There have been at least 54 separate alkaloids in total isolated from the plant, several showing unique pharmacological actions.
Mitragynine is the most abundant, accounting for an average of roughly 66% of total alkaloids by weight. It also a partial opioid receptor agonist, though not the only one, and has the most influence on the effects felt by users.
Studies have shown that mitragynine may have fairly low potential for abuse and addiction, though the same cannot be said for 7-OH-mitragynine, which is said to be about 13 times as powerful as morphine.
That said, 7-OH-mitragynine is present in common kratom leaf products in only very small amounts, if at all. We will get more into kratom’s addictive potential and in a bit.
Worth noting is that the leaf’s alkaloid composition varies wildly according to where it was harvested.
How It’s Used
Traditionally, the leaves of the tree have been chewed or brewed into a tea, mostly by manual laborers looking to conquer the fatigue and aches associated with long days in the hot, humid climate. For most, lower doses act as a stimulant while heavier amounts usually lead to sedation.
To date, there have been no formal published studies analyzing the number of kratom users there are per country, but Thailand is arguably the biggest consumer of kratom in the world. In some parts, up to 70% of the male population has reported taking it on a regular basis.
In the United States, the leaf is often either swallowed as a finely milled powder or made into a tea. It is also available in capsule, extract, or crushed leaf form. There have been reports of people smoking kratom leaves.
This should be discouraged due to the lack of available data regarding what chemicals are produced, and ultimately inhaled, when the leaves are combusted.
As mentioned above, kratom can be either stimulating or sedating depending on the amount consumed. At lower dosages, perhaps 1-4 g of kratom leaf, most people report feeling stimulated with a noticeable boost in mood.
With larger amounts, as little as six grams for some, the effects are generally more relaxing. Many find their sweet spot after a couple days of experimentation.
Care must be taken to avoid consuming too much in one sitting as this can lead to nausea. This usually kicks in about 45 minutes or so after consumption and it only passes with time.
Users should always assess tolerance by starting with small amounts and gradually increasing from there.
Kratom is federally legal in the United States, but it is prohibited in Wisconsin, Indiana, Vermont, Rhode Island, Arkansas, and Alabama. There are multiple county and city/town governments that have banned it as well.
On the international stage, kratom is against the law in Australia, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Lithuania, Malaysia, Myanmar, Poland, Romania, South Korea, Sweden, and the UK.
It had been made illegal for a long period of time in Thailand until the Thai government reversed the ban in 2021 citing lack of harm and kratom’s potential as an alternative to dangerous hard drugs.
Efforts to criminalize kratom have largely been driven by lack of knowledge or misinterpretation of the available evidence. There is an extensive community of advocates working to address this.
Contrary to what critics may claim, it is not physically possible for a person to fatally overdose on unadulterated kratom leaf because it would require them to consume more plant material than they could fit in their stomach.
This is based off human equivalent dose calculations and extrapolations from several animal studies (like this one). On the other hand, there have been cases of products being adulterated with dangerous substances.
Also, extreme caution should be taken with extracts due to their high potency and potential for overdose should they be improperly dosed. Additionally, kratom may be habit-forming for some users after long periods of heavy use.
Dependency doesn’t occur for all users, but it may arise sooner for some than others. It is always recommended to take periodic breaks from use. This not only helps avoid addiction but also mitigates possible tolerance issues.
You definitely want to shop smart when you’re picking out a kratom source. There are large variances among vendors in terms of freshness and quality control.
Most mass market kratom, like the kind you find at smoke shops and from many companies that specialize in wholesale, has been sitting unsealed on a warehouse shelf for sometimes more than a year.
You can tell the difference in taste and aroma. Not all vendors follow proper hygienic processes either. Your source should follow proper food safety protocols to prevent your products from becoming contaminated with bacteria.
Also, you should look for a company that has their materials laboratory tested to ensure their contents are under a specific threshold when it comes to microbes and heavy metals. Look for a company that has their testing done by certified laboratories rather than in-house technicians.
What Is Kava?
Kava, or Piper methysticum, is a tropical evergreen shrub with large heart-shaped leaves and woody stems. This plant grows in the South Pacific islands, including Fiji, Vanuatu, and Samoa. It also grows in Hawaii.
The root of the tree has been used for centuries by Polynesian cultures for its sedative properties. In fact, it’s often referred to as “nature’s Xanax.” Versions of it have been part of trade throughout the Pacific regions for thousands of years.
The main chemical component responsible for its effects is called kavalactone, which is present in varying amounts depending on the form of the root. Small lateral roots called waka are the most commonly sold and usually have the highest kavalactone content.
Kavalactones are a class of lactone molecules that interact with neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. They have been shown to have antidepressant, anticonvulsant, and anxiolytic effects. Additionally, kavalactones modulate stress response systems and can help protect against neurodegeneration.
There are six main kavalactones found in kava root: desmethoxyyangonin (DMY), dihydromethysticin (DHM), kavain, methysticin, pipermethystine, and yangonin. Of these six kavalactones, kavain is thought to be primarily responsible for the sedative effects of kava, while DHM is thought to be responsible for its euphoric properties.
How It’s Used
Kava is traditionally consumed orally as a tea. When it is prepared for consumption this way, the root is first ground into a powder before being steeped in water. The kavalactones are not water-soluble, so this process helps extract them from the plant material.
After about 20 minutes, the tea can be strained and is ready to drink. It has a slightly bitter taste that some people compare to black coffee.
It can also be mixed with fruit juice or other flavored beverages to mask the taste. Many users mix it with whole fat or almond milk as the fats can help with kavalactone absorption.
Aside from the root powder, concentrates and extracts are available in the form of powder, capsules, liquid, and even paste. Common strengths contain 30% or 70% kavalactone by weight. Tinctures are also available in varying potency.
It is important to know that kava is traditionally consumed across multiple servings, very similar to alcohol, rather than one large dose to start.
The effects of kava vary depending on the dose taken. A small dose containing 250 milligrams of kavalactone will produce feelings of relaxation and mild sedation. A moderate dose, perhaps 500-1,000 mg, will increase these effects.
A large dose (a gram or more) can cause strong sedation and may even lead to unconsciousness in extreme cases. That said, large cups served in the plant’s native regions can contain over 1,650 mg of kavalactone, so accepted dosage varies widely depending on culture, tolerance, and other factors.
Keep in mind good kava root powder contains in the range of 5-10% kavalactone. It’s important to start with a small dose and increase it gradually to avoid unwanted side effects like dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.
It’s also important to drink plenty of water when taking it because consumption can cause dehydration. Kava is generally considered safe when taken in small to moderate doses.
There have been reports of kava being taxing on the liver when taken in large quantities or for extended periods of time, though most of these cases also involved the use of other substances or medications.
Still, If you experience any side effects like yellowing skin or eyes, dark urine, or abdominal pain, stop taking it and see a doctor immediately as this may indicate liver issues.
Kava is fully legal in the United States as of the time of this writing. Personal use and possession of small amounts are largely legal across the rest of the globe since sweeping bans were reversed around the turn of the century. Some nations limit how much can be imported or possessed.
The topic of dependence often comes up when discussing kratom vs kava because it is what opponents concentrate on, and often exaggerate, the most. While prolonged periods of heavy kratom usage can lead to a level of dependence, this doesn’t seem to be the case with kava.
There is no evidence that kava is physiologically addictive or causes withdrawal symptoms when usage is ceased. In fact, it has been used for centuries in the South Pacific for ceremonial and medicinal purposes with no reports of addiction or negative long-term effects.
That said, anything can become psychologically addictive given enough exposure without serious negative consequences. This is the same for anything enjoyable, however.
Non-noble kava is something to avoid. Its consumption leads to more side effects and it is less potent. Reputable retailers traditionally stay away from non-noble varieties and they are banned from export in some source countries, but know that there are some indiscriminate sellers out there who import them because they’re cheaper.
Also, just like kratom varies in alkaloid percentage, kava varies in kavalactone content. Since nature varies so much in the wild, the test results from a sample are not necessarily indicative of the content of an entire batch.
That said, it’s helpful to look at test results over time to see if they show a trend. Generally speaking, if a supplier continuously delivers products that test within a high range of kavalactone, you can expect that most of their products will be on the stronger side.
Kava shares another similarity with kratom, and that involves sourcing. Most of the time, you will find that vendors who source their kava from smaller farmers, rather than largely commercialized operations, tend to deliver fresher, more potent products. Just like with other consumer goods, there are drawbacks to mass production.
Kratom vs Kava Summary
Kava and kratom are both widely consumed plant-based substances with a long history of use. They share some similarities, but there are also some key differences between the two.
Both products contain psychoactive chemicals that provide euphoria, among other effects. Both can be used to help increase sociability. Also, both are easily accessible and affordable.
When shopping for kava or kratom, it’s important to look for products from reputable suppliers who source their materials from small farmers. This usually results in fresher, stronger products. Test results can also be helpful in determining potency levels.
There aren’t many other similarities beyond these, however. In terms of legality, kava has historically been left alone by legislators and is legal in most parts of the world.
On the other hand, there have been kratom bans initiated in various parts of the world and even in a small number of US states and local jurisdictions. The misinformation and negative propaganda surrounding kratom has made it a popular target for lawmakers.
In regards to effects, the kratom experience is best described as similar to what one would feel on a mild dose of opioid medication. Kava’s effects are often described as being very similar to those of alcohol.
Finally, there is no evidence to suggest that kava use leads to any level of physical dependence. On the other side, using large amounts of kratom for extended periods of time can, so it is wise to take period breaks.