The Chinese herb kudzu appears to be an effective treatment for managing excessive alcohol consumption, particularly binge drinking, report researchers at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital.
In a paper published in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, a team of researchers report that moderately heavy drinkers given the herb extract in capsule form for a week before taking part in a drinking experiment consumed significantly fewer beers than those who got a placebo.
“Alcohol consumption was almost cut in half,” said lead author Scott E. Lukas, PhD, director of McLean Hospital’s Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory. “All of the subjects except one reduced their intake.”
Beyond that, those on kudzu also drank more slowly, increasing the number of gulps or sips they took to consume each beer and taking more time to drink each beer, he said.
“They need more gulps to finish each beer,” Lukas said. “It tells us they are being more responsive to the cues the alcohol is giving their bodies. They realize they don’t need as much.”
It could mean that kudzu, a vine-like legume that contains a number of plant estrogens, could play a significant role in helping to reduce binge drinking, defined as consuming five or more drinks in one sitting for men and four in one sitting for women. The practice is a huge problem on college campuses.
Chinese herbal medicines including kudzu have long been used to reduce intoxication from alcohol consumption. In addition, animal studies showed one of these herbal products reduced alcohol intake in rats. This knowledge, plus the fact that there are few effective drug treatments for treating alcohol abuse, prompted Lukas and his team to conduct their study on kudzu. The investigation is one of the few double-blind, placebo-controlled studies of an herbal medicine.
The study looked at 14 men and women, all in their 20s and all reporting regularly consuming three to four alcoholic drinks per day. A laboratory at McLean Hospital was set up as an apartment, with TV, CD player, reclining chair and other amenities. The unit was also stocked with a refrigerator full of each subject’s favorite beer and other non-alcoholic beverages.
In an initial 90-minute session in the “apartment,” each subject was allowed to consume as many beers as he or she wanted up to a maximum of six. After the session, each was given either kudzu or a placebo and told to take it daily for a week. Then, each returned to do the experiment again. Two weeks later, the subjects returned for a third session to see if they had returned to their baseline drinking levels. After that, each subject was given the pill he or she didn’t get the first time and told to take it for a week. Each then returned for a fourth and final drinking session.
The study showed that subjects taking kudzu drank dramatically fewer beers than those on placebo, an average of 1.8 per session compared to 3.5. Those on placebo drank about the same number as they did during the baseline experiments.
“We don’t know why, but it looks like the kudzu is increasing blood alcohol levels,” Lukas said. “The [subjects] are getting drunker on less. It is satisfying them so they don’t need as many [beers].”
He said the drop in consumption was especially dramatic since the subjects only took the herb for a week and because they got a relatively low dose.
Since no side effects were reported, he said it is likely the dosage can safely be increased. If those taking the herb were to take it at a higher dose and for a longer period of time, consumption might be decreased even more, he suggested. Future studies are expected to look at such possibilities, he said.
“Kudzu is not going to take someone who drinks 30 beers a week and turn him into a teetotaler, but you might go from 30 to 15 in a week,” he said. “It is not going to be a panacea or magic bullet, but it looks like it could be a tool for getting people to reduce their drinking.”
McLean Hospital, consistently ranked the nation’s top psychiatric hospital by U.S. News & World Report, is an affiliate of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of Partners HealthCare.
From McLean Hospital