Way back in 1876, to combat soil erosion in the southeastern US, scientists here imported a Japanese climbing vine that would spread faster (one foot per day!) than anything we already had. As many of us have seen firsthand all these years later, this may not have been a good plant to bring to our country… in fact, kudzu is so aggressive and fast-growing that the US government declared it a “noxious weed” in 1997 because the unstoppable vine has been engulfing and destroying trees and other vegetation across swaths of the country. It has even been known to engulf houses!

But in matters of health, it turns out that kudzu may be a real boon. The latest discovery: It has a novel ability to help people who drink too much.

A Party for Study Participants

Study author David M. Penetar, PhD, in McLean’s Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory, told me that 14 male and female volunteers in their 20s who, according to their own reports, regularly had three or four alcoholic drinks per day but had no family history of alcoholism were given either kudzu extract or a placebo for nine days. At the end of the nine days, they were invited to sit in a laboratory setup “apartment” — with a sofa, TV and beer-stocked fridge — where they could hang out, watch television and drink as much as they wanted. There was a specially designed table where they rested their beer mugs (between quaffs), equipped with a built-in scale that measured how much beer was swallowed each time a person picked up a mug to take a sip (or gulp, as the case may be).

Meanwhile researchers also took blood samples to measure each person’s chemical response to alcohol. Interestingly, they found that the concentrations of blood alcohol climbed slightly faster in the group that had been taking kudzu, but their peak blood alcohol levels climbed no higher than peak levels in the placebo group when compared with those who had consumed an equal amount of alcohol. In other words, kudzu sped up but did not strengthen the alcohol’s effect. Researchers believe this was because kudzu contains several isoflavones, in particular diadzin, diadzein and puerarin, which are known to decrease ability to absorb ethanol (alcohol).

Whatever the cause, it seemed that taking kudzu reduced the desire for alcohol, resulting in a significant decrease in how much the study participants actually drank, with the kudzu group averaging 1.8 beers per session while those in the placebo group drank on average 3.5 beers. Dr. Penetar told me that taking kudzu did not get participants more drunk or less drunk — they know this because they measured how the same amount of alcohol impacted body stance and vigilance/reaction time. He said that the kudzu-takers reported feeling the effects of the beer sooner than they would have without kudzu.

Drink to That?

Based on the study findings, Dr. Penetar says that people who tend to drink too much may want to consider taking kudzu root in order to reduce their alcohol consumption. Study volunteers took two 500-mg capsules with meals three times a day for a daily total of three grams per day. Kudzu capsules are available in health-food stores, but none of the products currently on the market has an active ingredient level of the isolated target compounds of 25% — 19% puerarin, 4% diadzin, 2% diadzein — which is the formulation used in the study. The McLean research team is working with a lab to formulate such a capsule and hopes to bring it to market in a year or so.

Dr. Penetar told me that researchers are currently trying to learn whether taking kudzu immediately before drinking will help curb the desire for alcohol, but he explained that people who suffer from alcoholism will need more than just an extract of kudzu. “They need to go through normal medical detox, but after that, taking kudzu might help them if they have a relapse,” he said, adding that alcoholics would probably need to take kudzu every day to achieve the constant and protective level that would best serve them.