Is Kava from China Dangerous?

Kava from China DangerousI understand that asking if Kava from China is dangerous is a very broad statement for a very broad market. And, after interviews with Kava importers as well as Wonderland Labs (a testing facility that specializes in testing Kava), the results were quite consistent across the board. From more than a dozen testing results from various China-based companies selling Kava in various forms, from powders to Kavalactone extracts in various strengths, the results fell into 2 main categories.

The Kavalactone lineup for 85% of all the Kava we studied from China had a Kavalactone lineup of 2-5-3, and a consistent Kavalactone content of about 11%. Most of this Kava root was advertised as “Noble” Kava root, although 2-5-3 lineups are almost exclusively Tudei Kava. Tudei Kava is actually a non-noble variety of Kava. Another 15% had a consistent Kavalactone lineup of 2-4-3, which is actually consistent with Noble Kava from Vanuatu or possibly Fiji.

Equally as interesting, though, is that the advertised percentages of Kavalactone within the test samples were almost always half of the actual Kavalactone content. When confronted with this information, we were told that the manufacturer’s testing shows results that are quite different than the confirmed results we found.

So, what about the 2-5-3 Kavalactone lineup? It tests out as a non-noble variety of Kava. Most Kava connoisseurs prefer Noble Kava root, which is somewhat analogous to single malt liquors or single origin coffees. Noble Kava root can usually be traced to a very specific geographical location in the world, and is typically thought to be a more “pure” form of Kava. for example, Hawaiian Kava has about 13 major varieties, all of which are a Noble kava root. Varieties such as Ne Ne, M’oa, and Mahakea each have very different characteristics, and typically have different Kavalactone lineups.

But, recent research has shown that Tudei Kava and its FKB content has several key health benefits in the amounts consumed by Kava drinkers.

Read on…

Tudei Kava on the other hand, has the same Kavalactone lineup no matter where it grows in the world. Tudei Kava is a faster growing Kava that typically has thicker rootstock. When the Kava market was exploding in the 1990’s, a lot of farmers were having difficulty keeping up with demand, and switched their crops to Tudei Kava. So, what’s wrong with Tudei Kava, one might ask?

The major constituents of ethanolic kava root extract are kavalactones, including kawain, dihydrokawain, methysticin, dihydromethysticin, yangonin, and desmethoxyyangonin. Kava root extracts also contain chalcones, including flavokawain A, flavokawain B, and flavokawain C. We initially screened all 6 major kavalactones and 3 chalcones for cytotoxicity toward HepG2 hepatoma cells using MTT assays. None of the kavalactones, except yangonin, exhibited toxicity at concentrations up to 150 μM.

Tudei Kava is known to have larger amounts of Flavokawain A and Flavokawain B (sometimes spelled Flavokavain) than most Noble Kava root. With all of the controversy over extremely rare cases of liver damage with Kava consumption, recently, flavokavain B is emerging as a possible link to that rare liver damage. In study published in the US National Library of Medicine, they had this to say about Flavokawain B (FKB):

Interestingly, all other compounds tested, including FKA and yangonin, failed to induce cell death in L-02 cells (data not shown). FKB (Fig. 1B) was therefore chosen for further investigation, not only because it was a more potent cytotoxin in liver cells as compared to FKC, but also because FKB was >20-fold more abundant than FKC in acetone or ethanol extracts of kava.

Before anyone gets in an uproar though, it’s important to note two key items:

  1. What SOLVENT IS USED to extract Kava.
  2. The AMOUNT of Flavokawain-B that needs to be present to cause this cell damage.

Water, the most common extraction method for Kava, is considered a solvent, and therefore, is included on the below chart. What the chart shows, is that very little Flavokawain-B is extracted from Kava when it’s extracted by water. This is of critical importance, especially when researching what the Kava products you choose to purchase were extracted into. Take a look at the chart below:

flavokawain b extraction chart

Out of 46.6mg/g of Kavalactones extracted into water, there was only 0.2mg/g of FKB. In a full day’s serving of 290mg of Kavalactone as recommended by the FDA, that’s only 1.2mg TOTAL Flavokawain-B in your entire day’s Kava serving.

So, let’s take a look at what amounts were measured in the trials: In the quoted study, mice were orally administered FKB in amounts that are equal to 25mg/kg body weight daily for 1 week. Since a mouse weighs about 0.02kg, that means about 0.5mg of FKB were administered per day for a week.

Translating 25mg/kg of weight into human terms, for a 125lb/57kg person that’s 1425mg of FKB every single day for a week. For a 165lb/75kg person that’s 1875mg of FKB every single day for an entire week.

Let’s look at these astounding numbers for a second: So, even if a human consumed several water-based shells of Kava a day (a typical “shell” of Kava contains about 120mg of Kavalactone), they would only be consuming about 1.2mg of FKB in total. That’s about 1,375 times LESS FKB that induced the reported cell death in mice. Even if you had a full day’s serving of Kavalactone per shell (about 290mg per shell) and still drank several shells a day (rarely happens, even with experienced Kava drinkers), that’s still about 458 times less FKB that induced cell death in mice.

To put this another way, to achieve the same levels of toxicity that were done in the quoted study, a person of average weight would have to consume over 1,000 shells of Kava every day for an entire week. Yes, the argument can be made that over time, damage could accumulate, but that’s not how FKB operates. FKB was shown to be dangerous only in extremely large doses, administered daily over the course of a week. It doesn’t “store up” in the human body, and get more toxic over time.

What does this mean for the average consumer of Kava: If you don’t drink Kava, and a lot of it every day, there is little to no evidence that Kava is hepatotoxic in the amounts you would be consumed. If you happened to purchase some bad product from a shady vendor that was extracted into ethanol, you would still need to consume about 100 shells of Kava in a single day, for an entire week to have the same effects that were shown in the study.

So, if much of the Kava coming out of China is actually 2-5-3 and considered Tudei Kava, is it dangerous to consume? It’s only my very non-scientific opinion, but from the various amounts of evidence I’ve gathered, I would have to say no. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be looking for Noble varieties of Kava root from a reputable vendor when you’re looking to purchase Kava, but it means that Tudei Kava doesn’t appear to be as dangerous as some of the media hype has made it out to be.

In fact, in that same study, they stated this:

Controlling the levels of FKB in kava products by modifying existent extraction methods or possibly by genetically modifying FKB biosynthesis should in principle reduce, if not eliminate, those rare hepatotoxic effects observed in consumers of kava root extracts.

What they are referring to is Kava that is extracted into water. Most consumers are extracting their Kava into water, so it appears that even though this study does show hepatoxicity with levels of FKB that no consumer would be able to physically ingest, even the levels of FKB that could potentially exist in water-based extracts do not appear to be harmful.

As a further note, they also concluded this:

Kavalactones have been proposed to account for kava-induced liver toxicity, but no noticeable toxicity was observed in rats fed with kavalactones (>500 mg/kg, daily for 4 wk). In agreement with this in vivo observation, our data showed that indeed kavalactones had no significant effects on the viability of selected liver cell lines.

This is true for any Kava, whether it’s a Noble variety or the Tudei variety, and this is good news for Kava, wherever in the world it comes from.

Flavokawain B’s Health Benefits?

Now, this will likely be more controversial than any of the other statements in this article, but there’s a peer reviewed study from January 20, 2016 that has concluded that the amounts of Flavokawain B (FKB) contained in the amounts of Kava an average consumer might typically ingest, are not harmful, but protective to our health. Some may find this difficult to believe, but the evidence couldn’t be any clearer. I have taken three of the most definitive conclusions from the study:

Flavokawains promote an adaptive cellular response that protects hepatocytes against oxidative stress. We propose that FKA has potential as a chemopreventative or
chemotherapeutic agent.

And secondly:

Both flavokawains activated Nrf2, increasing HMOX1 and GCLC expression and enhancing total glutathione levels over 2-fold (p < 0.05).

And third:

Calculations by Teschke et al. have shown that the dose of FKB obtained from an ethanolic kava extract is 250-fold below the amount needed to cause modest hepatotoxicity, based on rodent studies (Teschke et al. 2011).

Ths should give plenty of fodder for discussion for those who remain convinced that Tudei Kava is the scourge of the Kava world…


P.S. Read a similar article on Tudei Kava and Flavokawain B called “Is Flavokawain B Dangerous?” to find out more.