May 16, 2005 -- One week's treatment with an extract of the kudzu vine reduces alcohol consumption by heavy drinkers, according to a study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
"Kudzu treatment resulted in significant reduction in the number of beers consumed," Scott E. Lukas and colleagues write.
In a laboratory designed to look like a studio apartment, heavy alcohol drinkers had a chance to drink their preferred brand of beer after treatment with a placebo and after treatment with kudzu extract.
Treating Alcohol Dependence
Alcohol is the most widely used drug in the world. Alcohol-related problems account for 100,000 deaths annually in the U.S., write the researchers. Of the available medications used to treat alcohol dependence, three of which are available in the U.S., none are universally effective and all have side effects that limit their use, they write.
Antabuse, ReVia, and Campral are approved drug treatments for alcoholism. Treatment of alcoholism with herbal extracts dates back to the 600 AD, say the researchers.
Kudzu is a climbing vine in the pea family that grows rapidly, as much as 1 foot per day.
In one of the first studies of an isoflavone extract of kudzu, mice had been found to have lower blood alcohol levels after receiving oral doses of kudzu.
In this study, researchers looked to see if extracts of kudzu could reduce alcohol drinking in heavy drinkers. They also looked at whether the pattern of drinking was affected by the treatment.
During 90-minute sessions in the mock apartment, kudzu cut the numbers of beers consumed by the drinkers. The participants drank an average of 1 1/2 beers while on the kudzu treatment compared with 2 1/2 beers while taking a placebo.
Of the 11 participants who completed the study, eight drank less while receiving kudzu. In addition, the participants took smaller sips and took more time to drink each beer while on kudzu, though they said their urge to drink alcohol remained the same.
The researchers note that participants who took kudzu extract in previous studies reported feeling more "floating" and "intoxicated" after one drink, suggesting that kudzu may prolong or enhance the effects of the first drink.
"Apparently, this effect is sufficient to delay or eliminate the desire to drink subsequent beers," the researchers write.
Help for Binge Drinkers
While a decrease of one beer over a 90-minute period may sound small, the researchers suggest the kudzu effect could add up by helping heavy drinkers drink less "during each drinking episode."
"In the context of binge drinking that often exceeds 10 to 12 beers per episode, this small, but significant, decrease in consumption could have important implications," write researchers.
The researchers point out that they did not include alcoholics in the study. The 14 participants were heavy drinkers with no family history of alcohol dependence, so more research is needed to determine whether kudzu might be useful in treating alcoholism.
The researchers add that kudzu's lack of side effects could give it an advantage over other medications used to treat substance abuse.
"In the future, it may be worth examining whether kudzu extract can be used in pregnant women, adolescents, and other vulnerable populations where a lack of medication toxicity is not only desirable but also necessary."
The study was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.