Chinese medicine has used the kudzu plant ( ge gen ) for centuries to treat stiff neck, sprains, thirst and diarrhea, and to reduce drinking. It has also been used as a hangover cure. Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology states that kudzu’s traditional functions date back to Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing , originally compiled in the second century. Today, researchers are exploring this Chinese herb’s use in Detoxification therapy and to reduce alcohol consumption abuse.
A May 2005 study by Harvard Medical School and New England Research Institutes found that properties of the kudzu plant may cause alcohol to reach the brain more quickly. Drinkers feel the effects sooner and will likely drink less and more slowly. During the seven-day study, 14 subjects were observed in a simulated living room and small kitchen, which was stocked with their favorite beer. Each of the subjects was a heavy drinker, averaging 25 alcoholic beverages per week. None had a family history of alcoholism or were alcohol dependent.
Between drinks, the subjects rested their beer on a scale so researchers could monitor exactly how much they were drinking. They then either took 500 mg kudzu plant capsules three times a day or a placebo for a week and then returned to the lab. After observation, there was a “washout” period and treatments were then reversed – those who had been taking kudzu plant were given a placebo and vice versa. Behavior-observing researchers did not know who had been given what. The subjects who had been taking kudzu plant showed almost a 50 percent average decrease in beer intake and took smaller sips, while placebo takers drank the same quantity as before. No side effects were reported or observed from kudzu plant intake.
An earlier study conducted by Keung and Vallee found that kudzu plant extract suppressed the alcohol intake of hamsters that had been bred to prefer and consume alcohol. They became water drinkers instead. Kudzu plant contains the isoflavones puerarin, daidzin, daidzein and genistein, considered to be the active elements. The study was not designed to answer the question of why kudzu plant works, and theories are still being formed within the Western medical community.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, alcohol is considered energetically warm or hot and acts on the body by turning the face red, burning the stomach and making one feel flushed with warmth. It creates damp and heat inside the body. Alcohol intoxication can be described as “false clear yang rising,” which adds to the temporary high spirits of drunkenness. It is the job of the Spleen to lift clear yang, but this task is impaired by alcohol. True clear yang fills the mind with brightness and intelligence, so when it fails to raise properly, dizziness, fogginess and fatigue ensue, resulting in hangover.
The damp-heat of alcohol can dehydrate the body as it damages body fluids. Kudzu plant’s ability to generate fluids helps repair this and is an effective hangover cure. Its sweet flavor nourishes and strengthens digestive organs, especially the Spleen and Stomach. Kudzu plant also has a spicy property, which carries a dispersing action, pushing toxins out of the body. Its energetic coolness combats the heat component of alcohol.
It may seem counterintuitive that kudzu plant can work both as a hangover cure and to curb the desire to drink, but the same elements that help ease the physical consequences may push the body to feel alcohol’s effects sooner. Original theories suggested that daidzin and daidzein inhibited enzymes that are essential to metabolizing alcohol, but current data, according to Lin and Li, has prompted the theory that components of kudzu plant may work within the central nervous system. They propose that the suppression of alcohol reinforcement produced by kudzu plant compounds is mediated centrally in the brain reward pathway.
According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency, there are more than 100,000 American deaths per year as a result of alcohol abuse. Counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous and detoxification are helpful and often necessary treatments, but current alcohol medication resembles unpleasant aversion therapy. Of the few alcohol medication drugs available to treat alcohol dependency, most discourage drinking with uncomfortable reactions to even the smallest amount of alcohol. These include nausea, vomiting, facial flushing, headache and anxiety. Kudzu plant, unlike alcohol medication, produces no effects of its own, does not block the effects of alcohol and does not make people sick if they drink alcohol.
More research is needed to understand kudzu plant’s potential role in combating serious alcohol dependency and as a hangover cure, but studies on rats and hamsters, the Harvard study on humans, and ancient Chinese use of kudzu plant are positive indicators of its success.