11 Aug 2023

New study to explore kava as a treatment for PTSD

From Afternoons, 1:35 pm on 11 August 2023

Kava – a ceremonial Pacific Island drink known to relax the muscles – is showing promise as a therapy for the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To further explore the therapeutic potential of kava for first responders, military personnel, and Corrections staff, University of Waikato researchers recently received a Health Research Council grant of almost $1 million. 

Kava bowl

Photo: RNZ Pacific/ MacKenzie Smith

PhD student Anau Mesui-Henry, who co-owns Auckland's Four Shells Kava Lounge, will be part of the three-year study. She tells Jesse Mulligan about the healing potential of kava.

Kava, which Pacific islanders have been drinking for over 3,000 years, holds cultural and ceremonial significance as "a symbol of community, unity and sharing", Anau says.

Its calming, anti-anxiety effects are well-known, she says, but it's a misconception that consumption will get you "drunk".

"It relaxes your body so you're in a state of just being content where you are. But you still have a heightened sense of clarity.

"A lot of times we use it to promote relaxation, it helps reduce anxiety, alleviate stress and actually helps with sleep, as well.

"It kind of makes sense we should be putting a little more study in it to be able to share it with other groups, other ethnicities."

Participants in the study will consume kava the traditional way – in a group setting – and engage in group discussion known as 'talanoa', Anau says.

Todd Henry and Anau Mesui-Henry - owners of the Four Shells Kava Lounge in Auckland

Todd Henry and Anau Mesui-Henry - owners of the Four Shells Kava Lounge in Auckland Photo: Supplied

In Auckland, ceremonial kava-drinking is available to the public at Four Shells Kava Lounge which she opened with her husband in 2019.

She says it's a cafe setting where everyone is welcome and mingling is encouraged.

"There's no expectations. You can come in and relax and just have meaningful conversations. It's more about who you are and where you're from, rather than what you do sort of thing.

"We get all sorts of people coming through… in one night we can have someone from Tahiti, someone from Dubai and someone from America all in the one space. It's really nice, actually."

The upcoming clinical study of kava therapy is co-led by esteemed Pacific health researchers Dr Apo Aporosa and Dr Sione Vaka

"It appears kava's relaxing effects facilitate quality discussion and help mitigate common avoidance behaviours linked to PTSD," Dr Aporosa said in a recent press release.