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Compounds in Kudzu Offer Potential Health Benefits

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Kudzu, a fast-growing plant often referred to as "the vine that ate the South" may be more than just a big, green nuisance. According to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, chemical compounds found in the kudzu plant have a number of important medicinal properties.

In animal studies, kudzu root extract was found to blunt the usual rise in blood pressure that accompanies a high-salt diet. And in rodents with the equivalent of type 2 diabetes, kudzu compounds were shown to significantly reduce blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity.

Should additional studies confirm the beneficial actions of kudzu on blood pressure and blood sugar levels in humans, there will be plenty of plants to go around. The voracious vine currently covers more than 7 million acres of land in the southeastern states.

In spite of its widespread distribution, kudzu isn't native to the United States. It was brought to this country more than a century ago, when the Japanese government delivered a charming horticultural display to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Americans loved the lush green leaves and the sweet-smelling flowers of the exotic-looking vine, and soon began mail-ordering kudzu plants to decorate their gardens and shade their porches. In the aftermath of the Depression, the U.S. government actually paid farmers to plant kudzu on their unused fields as a means of controlling soil erosion.

In the highly favorable growing conditions of the South, kudzu spread like wildfire. The plant known as the "mile-a-minute vine" can grow up to a foot a day in the summer.

While agricultural specialists are working hard to find ways to eradicate the weed, medical researchers are uncovering a growing list of therapeutic applications of the chemical compounds found in kudzu. In Asian countries, various parts of the plant have been used as ingredient in foods and medications for at least 2,000 years.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the ground root and the flower are used to treat fever, headache and muscle cramps. Kudzu has long been included in herbal remedies designed to alleviate menopausal miseries, including hot flashes and mood swings.

Recent studies have confirmed the presence of weak plant estrogens in the roots and flowers. Human intestinal bacteria act on these plant estrogens in the gut, increasing their potency.

For some women, the estrogenic activity of kudzu-containing products can provide welcome relief from menopausal symptoms, minus many of the risks associated with traditional estrogen therapy.

Kudzu may prove to be most beneficial for folks who want to cut back on their consumption of alcohol.

When Harvard researchers tested it on golden hamsters that were genetically engineered to be "drinkers," they found that the rodents' alcohol intake was dramatically reduced.

For the study, untreated hamsters were given a choice between water and alcohol, and their consumption of each liquid was measured. After treatment with kudzu, the hamsters' consumption of alcohol fell by more than half.

The results of the hamster study prompted scientists to test the effects of kudzu extract on human drinkers. Researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., recruited 14 men and women, whose average age was 24 years, to participate in a new study.

The laboratory was an apartment, complete with a television set, comfy seating and a fully stocked fridge. In the early stages of the study, each subject was allowed to drink up to six servings of beer to allow researchers to determine his or her normal consumption pattern.

Later in the study, the subjects were given kudzu capsules or placebo pills for a period of one week. The subjects didn't know which capsules they were taking until after the study.

When subjects took the kudzu-containing capsules, they not only drank more slowly, they also drank significantly less alcohol. On average, treatment with kudzu extract produced nearly a 50 percent reduction in alcohol consumption.

The researchers aren't exactly sure how kudzu works to dampen drinking behavior, but they're hopeful that it will prove useful in the prevention of binge-drinking. Taken at higher doses and for longer periods of time, extracts of kudzu could help dramatically reduce alcohol consumption in people who tend to drink too much too fast.

If you live in the South, you probably know where you can find a nice patch of kudzu. For folks who live elsewhere in the United States, kudzu-containing capsules, teas and tinctures can be found in most health food stores.

Rallie McAllister, M.D., M.P.H., is a family physician in Kingsport, Tenn., and author of "Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim." Her Web site is http://www.rallieonhealth.com. To find out more about Rallie McAllister, M.D., and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2007 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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