Anyone who's been to the southeastern United States has seen kudzu, the invasive vine that can swallow an abandoned car faster than Takeru Kobayashi can eat a few dozen Nathan's hot dogs. Introduced from Japan in 1876 (that's the vine, not the competitive eater) and promoted in the 1930s as a form of erosion control, the plant spread like a California brush fire in the Southeast's steamy climate. It now covers about 10 million acres in lush, coiling and sun-blocking greenery and is considered a pest weed.
But it's not all bad, as Asian herbalists and, now, American researchers, have found. In traditional Chinese medicine, kudzu, called gé gēn, is used to treat a number of conditions, including alcoholism, symptoms of menopause, neck and eye pain, and diabetes. Many of these claims have not been scientifically tested, but kudzu's usefulness against the last ailment has recently been supported by research on laboratory rats at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The results of studies there, published in the latest Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, were that the isoflavones in kudzu root improved regulation of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose, all important to controlling diabetes. One isoflavone, puerarin, is found only in kudzu and appeared to have the most positive impact.
J. Michael Wyss, lead author on the study, was quoted on the UAB Web site as saying that puerarin "seems to regulate glucose by steering it to places where it is beneficial, such as muscles, and away from fat cells and blood vessels."
The next step, Wyss continued, will be to understand more about how the isoflavone works, and conduct human trials to determine how it would be most beneficial. Interestingly, the South has the highest diabetes rates in the country, meaning help may have been growing right under the noses (and up the utility poles) of the people who could use it most.
Earlier studies have looked at other potential benefits of a kudzu supplement, like controlling binge drinking. In 2005, Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital found that subjects who took the herb for a week before participating in a drinking experiment consumed about half as much beer as subjects who took a placebo, and drank it more slowly.
Unfortunately for those who do over-imbibe, no one has proven—although some have tried—that kudzu can cure a hangover.