Back to Our Roots: ʻAwa


My first experience with ʻawa was at a gathering on Kahoʻolawe. On our last evening, ʻawa root was prepared and bowls passed around. It had an earthy yet slightly medicinal taste and numbed my tongue for hours afterward. I didn’t know then about the many health benefits of ʻawa other than what I felt and how this experience seemed to bond our group closer than before.

Today, ʻawa is most commonly used to help calm and relax the body and mind. It is medically recognized as a treatment for anxiety. Researchers suggest it is a better alternative to anti-anxiety medications, as it is effective in treating mild to moderate anxiety without the addictions commonly seen with western medications. Insomnia and other sleep disorders may also be improved by consuming ʻawa.

Another common use of ʻawa is to soothe aches and pains of the muscles, tissues, and joints. It has the ability to reduce inflammation throughout the body – even gum disease – and can aid in tissue repair and recovery. I prepare ʻawa oil for our patients to provide relief from rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.

Studies on ʻawa suggest great potential in preventing and treating cancer. ʻAwa contains powerful chemicals that can fight cancers of the lung, breast, prostate, colon, bladder, stomach, and bones. It has been shown to improve memory and support brain health, and is being studied as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

There are possible side effects related to ʻawa. It is not recommended to use ʻawa before driving or operating machinery and it can increase the effects of alcohol. Liver damage may occur if consumed in high doses for a long period of time.

ʻAwa should be avoided altogether for individuals who are pregnant or breastfeeding or afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. Certain medications may interact with ʻawa, such as sedatives, anti-psychotics, and those used to treat Parkinson’s disease. And if you are scheduled to have surgery, stop using ʻawa two weeks prior, as it can increase the effects of anesthesia.

ʻAwa is reportedly safer to take as a prepared drink, instead of as a supplement.

To make your own ʻawa drink, soak fresh or dried roots in water overnight. Do not use the stems or leaves, as it can increase toxic risk. Next, pound the root – using a stone mortar and pestle, rolling pin, or even a clean hammer – to break down the root fibers until soft. Place the pounded root into a bowl with water, alternating brief soaking and squeezing of the root in the same bowl. Repeat about 15-20 minutes before drinking.

If using ground ʻawa root powder, put some of the powder in a strainer bag. Place the bag in a bowl with water and squeeze the bag every so often. Do this for 5-10 minutes. Stir the ʻawa mixture each time before serving. Start by drinking one cup per day; it is safe to drink up to four cups a day.

Alternatively, and with even fewer risky (yet effective) results, you can apply ʻawa oils or salves on the affected areas of your body.