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Understanding Kava Chemotypes and their Impacts

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For those who get pretty deeply into Kava, or for those who simply like to geek out a bit, learning about Kava Chemotypes can be a fun, useful, and enlightening exercise. Learning about the chemotypes can also help you get a sense for what the effects of a given kava will be prior to imbibing it, assuming you have the chemotype chart for that strain. This can be very useful when choosing your next batch of Kava (check out our Dua Na Bilo review)!

Ground Kava from Dua Na Bilo, Understanding Kava Chemotypes
Ground Kava from Dua Na Bilo, Chemotype 426351

Kava is broken into six common chemotypes, and the ratio and volume of different chemotypes present in a Kava will correspond to the effects of that Kava. In this article, I explore how these chemotypes function, and the impacts they have on the effects of Kava.

Note: I’m not a Kava scientist, and this is a layman’s explanation of Kava Chemotypes.


What are Kava Chemotypes?

Kava Chemotypes, as typically encountered, are a six-digit number that identifies the rankings of each of the six major kavalactones in a particular kava plant. For example, a kava with the chemotype 246513 would be a Noble kava highest in DHK (kavalactone number 2) and lowest in Yangonin (kavalactone number 3).

The Chemotype number identifies the effect a kava might produce, in a somewhat similar way to how ABV and IBU are used in beer.

The Broader Picture on Chemotypes

Kava Chemotypes are different types of chemicals found in the Kava plant (piper methysticum). There are potentially eighteen different chemotypes in the Kava plant. These chemotypes are called Kavalactones, which are the active ingredients in Kava. Of the eighteen total chemotypes, there are six dominant ones, as mentioned above, which determine the effects of a Kava.

Additionally, quantity of each Kavalactone present in the Kava can help identify the origin of that Kava, though there is obviously overlap between Kavas and islands of origin.

Overall Kavalactone Quantity

When looking at the potency of a given strain of Kava, you first want to consider the overall Kavalactone quantity of the sample of Kava. Typically, a given strain of Kava will have between 6% and 20% Kavalactone content, and the higher the content, the more overall impact the Kava will have.

Think of the Kavalactone quantity as similar to the ABV number of an alcoholic beverage.

Once you have the overall potency of the Kava, you can then dive into the specifics of which Kavalactones are dominant in the mix, and what the effects of that Kava will be.

The Six Primary Kavalactones

The predominant Kavalactones found in the Kava plant are:

  1. Desmethoxyyangonin (DMY)
  2. Dihydrokavain (DHK)
  3. Yangonin
  4. Kavain
  5. Dihydromethysticin (DHM)
  6. Methysticin

Kava Chemotypes are identified by the quanities of each Kavalactone present in the Kava, in descending order. For example a Kava identified at 243516 would be highest in Dihydrokavain, and lowest in Methysticin.

Here we will look at each of the Kavalactones in greater detail.

Desmethoxyyangonin (DMY)

This kavalactone is provides a sense of euphoria. It is generally present in small amounts in virtually all Kavas commonly imbibed.

Dihydrokavain (DHK)

This chemical brings on a sense of relaxation and sedation.

DHK is one of the two most predominant lactones present in virtually all Kavas.

Yangonin

This kavalactone provides a relaxation. It is in some way connected to the CB1 receptor, which is an endocannabinoid receptor, used by THC in the cannabis plant. At this point, it is unclear whether Yangonin is a CB1 agonist or antagonist, and to what degree Yangonin functions in a similar way to cannabis.

Kavain

This kavalactone can provide energy. Commonly Kavas high in Kavain are considered “daytime” Kavas, as they tend not be heavily sedating Kavas.

Kavain is one of the two most predominant lactones present in virtually all Kavas.

Dihydromethysticin (DHM)

Increases seratonin in the brain. High DHM kavas tend to be sedating, and often nauseating. This lactone tends to be slower-metabolizing compared to some of the other lactones.

Kava that is particularly high in DHM is likely Tudei (“Two Day”) variety, and consensus is that it should be avoided, unless you have reason to be digging into it.

Methysticin

Methysticin tends to dull sensations, and may be an analgesic, or pain reliever.


So how do the Kavalactones interact?

As I mentioned above, each type of Kava has its own chemotype chart, and is identified by the order of the six different kavalactones. The first three Kavalactones present are tend to have about 70% of the total Kavalactone content of the plant.

Kavain and DHK

Mesh Ball with Kava
Noble Kava

The vast majority of Kavas have either Kavain or Dihydrokavain (DHK) as their primary lactone, almost always followed by each other. In other words, virtually all Kava chemotypes are 24XXXX or 42XXXX.

If a Kava starts with 24 or 42, it is a “Noble” kava.

Typically, when the Kava is predominantly Kavain, it is more energizing, and more of a daytime Kava, while higher DHK presence results in a more relaxing, soothing Kava.

However, by just looking at the order of lactones, you won’t get a complete picture. This is because the effect of the Kava can depend significantly on how far apart the overall quantities of Kavain and DHK are from each other.

For example, a Kava that has 2.0mg Kavain and 1.9mg DHK may be completely different than a Kava with 3.5mg Kavain and 1.2mg DHK, even though the would have the same first two numbers in their chemotype chart.

Where is DHM (Chemotype 5) in the mix?

Another important aspect is where DHM, the 5th chemotype, lands in the chart. As DHM moves higher up the chemotype position chart, the more sedating, numbing, body heavy sensations will be present. This is especially true in Kavas that are predominantly DHK.

Nausea may be more common with high DHM kavas, as well.

If you find DHM in position two (e.g. 254XXX), you’re probably looking at a non-Noble Tudei Kava, which is generally considered undesirable.

Putting the Chemotypes Together

Some general guidelines for the different Chemotype combinations are shown here:

Chemotype OrderGeneral Effect
42XXXXEnergizing, heady kava. Less body sedation
24XXXXRelaxing, dreamy, calm kava
245XXXMore sedating, body numbing characteristics.
254XXXStrong sedation, deep relaxation, nausea. Probably a Tudei Kava.
46XXXXHeady, pain relieving effects

You can find the chemotypes charts for many different types of Kava at this KavaForums page. In the Kava reviews I have done so far, and plan to do, I provide the chemotype information if possible.

Chemotypes and Origin

To some degree, chemotypes can help identify the origin location of a Kava. It’s almost like the terroir of a wine, but not exactly.

For example, Kavas from Hawaii often have chemotypes starting with 46XXXX, due to the particular selective breeding that took place in Hawaii over the centuries to produce the Hawaiian strains.

for Vanuatu Kavas, on the other hand, the first two numbers are often 246XXX, or even 26XXXX.

References:

Kava Forums Chemotypes

Roots of Happiness 

PubMed

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