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What’s the Difference between Kava and Ayahuasca?

Kava and Ayahuasca

Both kava and ayahuasca are intoxicating substances derived from plants found in warm-weather areas of the world. Kava, sometimes called kava-kava, is a shrub that grows mainly on the Pacific Islands, including Hawaii. The plant’s roots are harvested for psychoactive compounds called kavalactones. It is a popular social drink in the native cultures on these islands, producing relaxing effects like alcohol.

Ayahuasca, on the other hand, grows in the Amazon area and contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a drug that causes visual hallucinations. The leaves are brewed into a tea and consumed. Originally, it was used in religious rituals, but now, ayahuasca consumption in South America is a tourist industry.

Kava

Kava root, Kava-Kava rhizoma, for herbal medicine

Although kava has been used in ritual and social settings for thousands of years among Pacific Island cultures, the substance has been recently introduced globally, and in much of the US and Europe, it has become a substance of abuse. Some medical researchers have studied the drug – which has only recently been banned in many places due to concerns about liver toxicity and addiction – and found that it has potential positive benefits for those struggling with anxiety, panic disorder, or insomnia. However, like other central nervous system depressants, including alcohol and benzodiazepines, kava can lead to abuse and addiction.

Effects of Kava Intoxication

By making a tea or other kind of drink with the powder, or consuming capsules, people in the US and much of Europe take kava as a “supplement,” but the drug can be addictive and intoxicating. Effects from kava include relaxation and euphoria, but most people report that the substance does not lead to the same cognitive fogginess or memory trouble as alcohol. Other effects include:

  • Muscle relaxation
  • Sedation
  • Analgesia, or painkilling results

These effects in kava, like in other CNS depressants, can be reinforcing, which means that people who are susceptible to developing addictions are more likely to form compulsive behaviors around consuming this substance.


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Kava Side Effects

Taking kava can lead to both short-term and long-term side effects. The most common effects after consuming kava include:

  • Drowsiness, especially in the morning
  • Changes to vision
  • Gastrointestinal problems, like stomach cramps

Consuming large amounts of kava for a long time can cause serious, chronic harm to the body. Some signs of long-term kava abuse include:

  • Flaky, dry, or scaly skin
  • Red eyes
  • Puffy face
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty absorbing protein
  • Lung problems
  • Development of blood cell disorders
  • Yellowed hair, skin, fingernails, or toenails

Dangers of Kava Use

vector illustration of comparison of healthy and toxic liver

Abusing kava can lead to liver damage. While the frequency of liver damage and failure associated with abuse of this substance is not known, there have been between 50 and 100 cases reported around the world in recent years. People who have existing risks for liver damage, including alcohol use disorder or hepatitis, are at greater risk for developing a liver problem with frequent kava consumption. Still, if the substance is taken as a replacement for alcohol, consumed often in compacted form in capsules, or used recreationally in large quantities, it increases a person’s risk of liver toxicity.

Ayahuasca

Ground mimosa hostilis root bark and ayahuasca brew top view.

The intoxicating brew called ayahuasca is a mix of two plants: the ayahuasca vine and a shrub called chacruna, which contains a separate hallucinogenic drug that is sometimes abused alone, DMT. Because the mixture is used in religious ritual among Peruvian tribes, that South American country protects consumption of the substance. However, tourists from Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States frequently travel into the Amazon rainforest, not to benefit spiritually from the rituals around the drink, but to abuse the psychedelic drug.

Effects of Intoxication

While it is known that ayahuasca induces visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations, along with other emotional experiences associated with spiritual awakening, very little is known about how this plant mixture actually works. In many cases, after people come down from the ayahuasca high, it is hard to convince them that the experience was not real.

Altered consciousness includes a shifting perception of time, interconnectedness among living beings, seeing animals or mythical creatures, hearing sounds that are not there, and more.



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Ayahuasca Side Effects

Most people report that ayahuasca induces nausea and vomiting before hallucinations start. If a person is insufficiently prepared, this can cause disturbed emotions, and it can also lead to dehydration if they vomit too much or do not consume water afterward. Some side effects from taking ayahuasca include:

  • Nausea
  • Repetitive vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Hypertension
  • Dilated pupils
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of muscular coordination
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Paranoia
  • Depersonalization

Dangers of Ayahuasca Use

abstract representation of the afterlife with a man

While emotional side effects can be associated with hallucinogens, like induced mood disorders or psychosis, one of the biggest dangers from taking ayahuasca – since it is very difficult to obtain outside of Peru – is consuming a substance produced by an untrained “shaman” or ayahuasquero. Because ayahuasca tourism is a huge industry in South America, many people are claiming to be ayahuasqueros without any expertise, and this has led to overdoses among some travelers, caused not by the actual mix of ayahuasca and chacruna, but by the accidental inclusion of other poisonous plants in the mix.

Ayahuasca will also interact poorly with prescription medications and pre-existing medical conditions, including heart, liver, or stomach problems.

Drugs of Abuse

Both ayahuasca and kava contain naturally occurring, intoxicating chemicals, but that does not mean they are safe. These drugs can both be intense and dangerous. While ayahuasca is not considered addictive, it can lead to profound mental state changes that can be negative, and kava may lead to patterns of abuse and addiction. People who seek out these drugs may also abuse other substances, so it is important to seek help from medical professionals and a rehabilitation program to overcome substance abuse or polydrug addiction.

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