New Orleans kava bars: Can they root out your anxiety?

Kava making its way into mainstream markets (photo by: Helen Lewis)

Moments after consuming Kava, the feelings of euphoria and energy might hit, and then comes the inevitable observation of, “Wow, this really does taste like dirt.”

Kava is a root that has an earthy taste–“earthy” being a synonym for “mud-like”–that pierces through whatever it is mixed with, whether that is tea, hot milk, or chocolate. After ingesting kava, there is a temporary numbness of the mouth, usually for around ten minutes, and then a bodily relaxation occurs, possibly inducing a lighter, clear-headed feeling that can often make people talkative. These effects are caused by the kavalactone in kava going to work–attaching to receptor sites along your central nervous system and spurring muscle relaxation. The relaxed, talkative state people enter is perfect for socializing, which is why many kava bars, which resemble coffee shops more than bars, have been popping up around the United States.

There are two kava bars in New Orleans, Euphorbia and Uxi Duxi. Euphorbia was the first to open and is located in what appears to be a small house. Funky chairs and art are strewn around the entrance room, with games balanced on tables and shelves. To the side of the entrance room is a patio area with a stone walkway, sculptures, plants, and even a ping pong table hidden in a shed in the back. The bar is centrally located with a simple setup that resembles that of a minimalist coffee house: an espresso machine, a waterspout, a sink, a mini-fridge, and a single burner with a pot on top. And Ashley Daily, the establishment’s owner, perched behind it, probably chatting with a customer.

Ashley explains that she got into the kava business because, “Kava is used medicinally, to treat depression and anxiety and I have always been into herbs rather than pharmaceuticals. Fifteen years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and that’s when I read about kava, and I ordered it, and it’s pretty life-changing. After a few years of taking it, I thought it would be really cool to have an environment where people could come and hang out and just have a relaxing time. It does a lot of things alcohol does, it makes you really chatty, so it’s like a bar environment.”

Ashley went on to say that many of her customers come in with disorders that kava can help with. The wonder root alleviates symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia, phobias, ADHD, menopause, and drug and alcohol addiction. One of her customers, Richard a college student who was lounging back in one of the patio chairs like a cat in the sunlight says,  “I think, overall, I would say with anxiety and depression it has given me a lull state, like thoughts that you would have in that sense are diminished and you don’t have them as much and you can kind of just live life without overthinking and without intense thoughts that would come as a response to anxiety and depression. It makes me happier and relaxed through daily life.”

Many anti-depressants, anti-anxiety and attention disorder drugs can leave people with a numb feeling and a lack of energy. Kava focuses people, clearing the worries from their heads, but it also gives them energy and does not emotionally limit them. Richard explains that he chooses kava because “it gave me more control over emotional aspects of my life and I just overall felt better taking it” than taking pharmaceutical drugs.

Ashley elaborates on this, saying “Parents come in whose children have ADHD, and they want to try kava over the pharmaceuticals, and it works, because it calms you down, but it gives you a ton of focus, like it really clears your brain and you can think… most of the kids I have seen who were put on Ritalin go from being really, really hyper to numb.”

Also, kava, unlike many pharmaceutical drugs, is not addictive. After taking it for a while you can stop taking it and experience no withdrawal symptoms. Ashley explains, “After a year of taking it I was able to stop taking it, and through that year I was able to find out what makes me depressed, and work through things. I know a lot of people on anti-depressants when they quit taking it they go through withdrawal, they go through all these things, and I am not saying pharmaceuticals are totally terrible, but with kava…you don’t go through withdrawal; it is completely non-addictive.”

Nathan, the owner of Uxi Duxi, a mid-city kava bar, praises the medicinal benefits of kava, but focuses more on selling the root for its recreational use. Nathan is young, trendy and friendly, and decorated the shop in a manner that oozes spirituality and funkiness. Chairs of varying shapes and sizes are scattered around the bar’s large space, a wall is reserved for selling mystical trinkets, another hosts an altar for a skeleton wielding a scythe, draped in glitter. Music wafts through the space, almost synchronized with images projected on the altar’s wall. The bar itself is loaded with herbal products, perched in a structure made of dark wood.

Nathan explains that he wanted to play off of how kava lowers social boundaries and create a fun environment. “We have to sell it here on the basis of ‘Come calm down,'” Nathans says. “Kava relaxes people’s bodies in a nice, peaceful, gentle way, and people feel like they can connect after that.”

He goes on to explain how in the Pacific Islands before peace talks leaders would take kava so they could hold rational discussions. “Kava has a really long history of human usage, and it was made popular, especially in the West when people were trying to find solutions to all kinds of different prescriptions, including things that deal with stress, like depression and anxiety. It is native to tropical regions in the western pacific islands, and I think the biggest port for it or area for it is South Florida. In South Florida there are so many kava bars; they are just right on top of each other… I think that what we are experiencing in America right now is we are destigmatizing the herbal world.”

Kava is a non-addictive, euphoria-inducing, hangover-free, mental-health-aiding, cheap substance- so why doesn’t everyone use it? This is where side-effects drop in like a muddy boot on a cashmere rug. At least, where they would come in for most substances. Ashley explains, “The [main] side effect is–it’s usually after a lot of use, like a serious heavy use of it–is that it dries your skin out… it’s a diuretic. I have had two customers over four years who got dry patches around their eyes, and these are people who are drinking a ton of kava.” Richard also commented on side effects, “I guess the worst thing about it for me is falling asleep, but that’s only after the four hours it usually takes to go through my system.”

There is another side effect whose correlation is shaky at best with the root, yet clings to the root’s reputation with an unshakable persistence: Liver damage.

In 2002 a case report was released by the German Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices that contained 40 cases of liver damage linked to kava, resulting in kava containing products being banned from Europe. Since then, no studies of the same scale have come out that have supported this initial claim, and several studies have been released that have contradicted this report, leading to many European countries re-legalizing or decriminalizing kava.

Years after the German report, The National Institute of Health released a report that stated “The frequency of adverse reactions to kava, particularly liver injury, is not known.  Based upon reported cases, the estimated frequency of clinically apparent liver injury due to kava is less than one to one million daily doses.” The World Health organization also released a report that concluded, “Evidence from our review of case reports suggests that kava lactones in any type of product may rarely cause hepatic adverse reactions because of kava-drug interactions, excessive alcohol intake, metabolic or immune mediated idiosyncrasy, excessive dose or pre-existing liver disease. In addition to this background incidence, products made from acetonic and ethanolic extracts appear to be hepatotoxic on rare occasions, seemingly from non-kava lactone constituents.”

Despite the dismissal of kava’s link to liver injury the drug was labeled a “high-risk supplement” by the FDA this year. Ashley Daily attributed this to how, “a lot of companies put it through an alcohol or a chemical process. Well yeah, you don’t want to take that every day. But I serve raw root,” Richard says,  emphasizing that, “I don’t know what high-risk means. They didn’t get too detailed with it.”  Richard has his own theory, explaining that the plant continues to be slandered because “From the research I have done it really holds to be an issue for a lot of big drug companies because it is a cheap plant that does the same thing their drugs are doing, without as many side effects, without opiate addiction.”

Nathan seconds this theory, explaining “Pharmaceutical companies want to destroy that market because it means that their sales go down… they funnel money into the FDA through lobbying and that invokes stigmas for them to release research articles.” He goes on to say, “Kava is still a very innocent player in the battle, the herbal battle; I call it the war on consciousness. Can we rightly make the choices for ourselves about what we want to consume, why does anyone else have a say over that?”

Because kava is largely unregulated and new to the US market, kava bars sit in a precarious position in regard to the law. Nathan explains, “Everything we do here is in a grey area because it is so new and unregulated… we could have a city official come in and say, ‘You need to shut this down,’ and I would be like, ‘Alright.'”

Kava is only recently rising in popularity in America, so “The market is completely unregulated; there is no one making rules; there is no one checking the quality of this; and in that you have shadiness…When someone uses this industry incorrectly, like if a business owner in this industry does something shady within the industry, that just further stigmatizes what we are trying to accomplish here. We see the value of kava, we see what it can do for people, and we do not want that tarnished.”

Ashley is a proponent for how much of a positive force kava can be in people’s lives, going past describing the medicinal benefits it can have, to explaining the communities it can create. Kava makes people feel calm, social, and talkative, so walking into a kava bar is like walking into a coffee shop where you know everyone is happy and welcoming.

Euphorbia is often populated by people playing board games with friends, chatting with strangers, or sitting outside, sipping on a drink, enjoying the sunshine. “A lot of people come in with social phobias, but everyone stands up and introduces themselves, we hug each other all the time, so they can just let that go. They know they are walking into a safe place where people are not going to judge them. It’s been pretty inspiring for me.” She smiles saying, “I have had a few businesses in my life, and this one has been the most emotionally rewarding.”

Helen Lewis is a sophomore at Tulane University studying English and management.

Editor’s Note: This piece is the product of a collaboration between ViaNolaVie, Krewe Magazine, and Bard Early College New Orleans. These three community programs partnered together in an effort to bring voices of the youth into the journalistic realm. Under the guidance of professors Kelley Crawford (Bard Early College) and Michael Luke (Tulane University),  a composition course was manifested where students wrote non-fiction, New Orleans-based pieces, resulting in a printed publication (Krewe magazine) designed and published by Southern Letter Press and a digital publication on ViaNolaVie. 

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