Claims of mental health benefits for kava disputed, WHO warns on medical use

    Claims that kava could benefit people with mental illness have been disputed, with warnings that its dangers outweigh any benefits.

    Kava, which is widely drunk in Polynesia, can induce feelings of drowsiness and relaxation.

    Massey University lecturer, Dr Sione Vaka told a conference last week that kava had significant medical benefits, including mental illness.

    Dr Vaka’s doctoral research looked at definitions of mental illness from a Tongan perspective.

    He said his new research showed that because kava was familiar and used in a social context, it could help calm people with mental health issues.

    Dr Vaka told Radio New Zealand kava was important for Pacific people because it was part of their identity.

    “Kava reminds us where we come from,” he said.

    “I know to have good mental well-being you have to be connected culture-wise with your level of identity, so those levels of support will be good to maintain mental well-being.”

    However, Dr Colin Tukuitonga, director general of the Pacific Community and a former New Zealand Secretary of Health, disputed the claim.

    He said the dangers of kava use outweighed any good effects it might have.

    In a 2007 report The World Health Organisation said if kava was used for medicinal purposes it should only be available on prescription.

    It said kava should not be used in conjunction with antipsychotics.

    The American non-profit organisation Mental Health America says kava has been shown in more than a dozen placebo-controlled studies to be effective for treating generalised anxiety, with some evidence for stress, depression and insomnia.

    It says kava is generally safe for short-term use, but there are concerns it being used at the same time as other drugs.

    There are disputes about whether it causes liver damage.

    The main points

    • Claims that kava could benefit people with mental illness have been disputed, with warnings that its dangers outweigh any benefits.
    • Kava, which is widely drunk in Polynesia, can induce feelings of drowsiness and relaxation.
    • Massey University lecturer, Dr Sione Vaka told a conference last week that kava had significant medical benefits, including mental illness.
    • However, Dr Colin Tukuitonga, director general of the Pacific Community and a former New Zealand Secretary of Health, disputed the claim.

    For more information

    Academic says kava good for mental health

    Dispute over alleged health benefits of kava

    Assessment of the risk of hepatotoxicity with kava products. (World Health Organisation)

    Kava

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