Vine Meets the Wine: Can Kudzu Help the RecoveringAlchoholic?

Posted byDevin Greaneyon Monday, April 16, 2012 ·Leave a Comment(Edit)

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No, it is not a mastodon. Kudzu covers trees off Airport Road in Rockwood

Harold (not his real name ) was intoxicated and in the Shelby County jail – “the 201” locals call it – at 201 Poplar in Downtown Memphis on January 17, 2002. It was not his first time in lockup, nor was it his first time being intoxicated. He started drinking roughly five times a week in high school and now was in his mid-thirties.  “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I tried quitting a ton of times but I didn’t know how.” He knew that it was time for a change and this time was different. It was to be his last drink.

But could one of the area’s most annoying plants become a weapon in the arsenal of people like Harold, fighting that feeling of what he describes as “ you don’t want ever to take another drink but you don’t know how you are not going to?” According to traditional Chinese medicine, the ubiquitous kudzu plant can be used to fight alcoholism.

Forget a home remedy folded away in great grandma’s cookbook. Saying the scientific community is interested in its potential is as much of an understatement as saying is saying kudzu can grow in the Tennessee. In the early 1990’s, Harvard- yes THAT Harvard- started studying the possibilities.

The Chinese had started studying it earlier “for more than 2,000 years,” according to Dr Yaoping (Violet) Song, professor at AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine in Austin, Texas. It is one of the few schools in the US that teach traditional Chinese medicine. The herb is called ge gen( pronounced guh gun) and is used to treat other conditions as well.

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For those newcomers and  outside of the South, here is a little background on kudzu. The plant is not native, though it is hard to picture the southeastern quarter of the US without the ubiquitous vine. The plant was brought over from Asia less than 100 years ago in an attempt to control erosion. Anyone who studies biology will tell you when one brings a new species into an echo system, no matter how noble the intentions, either the species disappears due to the unfriendly climate, soils and predators,  or grows unchecked, taking over the habitat of other plants or animals. Ask a botanist for an example of invasive species and the first response will probably be “kudzu.”

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Dr Yaoping "Violet" Song. 

Photo courtesy AOMA Graduate 

School of Integrative Medicine

Not only is it invasive, it has an almost science fiction quality. Photographs of foreclosed homes in the south sometimes show new buyers are not interested in that mcmansion, but the kudzu is. The vine has the ability to blindly reach out looking for a tree or telephone pole to entangle. And a photo less than six months after the tsunami/earthquake/nuclear accident hit Japan, a home in Tomioka, Fukashima was being overrun by the vine like something from  a prophet’s post-apocalyptic vision.

The November 8, 1993 issue of Newsweek Magazine mentioned an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Harvard research team headed by Dr Bert Vallee whose team was doing research with golden hamster’s , a little mammal who preferred alcohol to water. Treatment with the kudzu cut their alcohol consumption in half. Research continued at Harvard and then beyond. Vallee died in 2010.

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Kudzu look like an electricians nightmare in the winter and in spring the green returns

More recently Dr Ivan Diamond of the University of California-San Francisco and Dr Ting Kai Li of Duke had positive results as well. ALDH2 is an enzyme which breaks down alcohol in the human body. A deficiency makes that alcohol toxic and the drinker sick- usually characterized by nausea, headaches and a racing pulse. Daidzin is the compound found in the plant that seems to inhibit the action of the enzyme, making alcohol less desirable.  Currently Dr Diamond is working with Gilead Pharmaceuticals who is studying the effects of kudzu for a possible drug for treating alcoholism. The only comment Gilead would make to Across Tennessee is to confirm the research is ongoing and in its early stages. 

Discover Magazine in July, 2005 made a list of the most important scientific breakthroughs in the last quarter century and on the list was the understanding of the endogenous reward system which Dr Jeanette Norden of Vanderbilt defined as “an internal reward when we engage in pleasurable activity.”

That may sound intuitive,  but these pleasurable feelings were only recently discovered to be originated from the nucleus accumbens  septi in the center of the brain which regulates the brain chemicals called monoamines. No love songs or romance novels mention the nucleus accumbens septi, but perhaps they should. Imagine an ideal day with our significant other- walking together enjoying the outdoors, followed by listening to favorite music together, followed by a fun evening on the town,  followed by a good dinner, followed sharing a glass of wine by the fire, followed by – okay, you get the idea. We have our nucleus accumbens septi to thank for those good feelings and even the anticipation of those good feelings. On the flip side due to a variety of factors including genetic traits, that endogenous reward system that just gave us our special day (and night ) with our loved one is also the same ERS that for the addict fuels addictions to drugs, gambling, pornography or most any other physical or psychological addiction. Fighting addictions involve working with the endogenous reward systems.

 If the person does not feel like drinking, then the person’s endogenous reward system will make him or her interested in taking a drink. Anabuse, a common drug to treat alcoholics, provides a similar effect.

Harold, the ten year sober alcoholic, is giving back by helping those struggling with alcoholism and has met many in the recovery community. He is skeptical this will do much to help serious alcoholics.  “With people who are alcoholics, I mean people who have been struggling a long time, the only thing that will get them stop is not a little more pain, but to realize you can’t go on. A little pain can’t keep them from drinking. They are used to it.”

” I know hundreds who have used Anabuseand drink on it. The body gets used to it and they drink for years,” he says.“I guess it could help some who want to cut back on the quantity they drink, but not those who want , or need, to quit,” Harold adds, “I don’t see it as much help for the alcoholic, just for the guy who wants to drink less and still feel the same.”

Dr. Song, the herbal medicine specialist, says there is a carrot as well as stick to the treatment. “It protects the liver and helps clear their mind from getting drunk.”  She has prescribed ge gen for people struggling with alcoholism. “Traditionally we have used the roots. For alcoholism we use the flower and the root, usually by boiling and we extract the major elements.” Song says it is a common treatment.

“It is interesting when people have addictions to alcohol it is not just the single body issue. It also psychological.  He knows he needs to quit drinking he just doesn’t know how. We ask him to use the ge gen and flower of the kudzu to soak in the alcohol to make an elixir so he gradually quits drinking,” she says. “We usually don’t use one single herb. We form a prescription and use multiple herbs together.”

The jury is still out as to if the chemicals found in kudzu will be available at the pharmacist. It is available as a herbal remedy. This article is not to debunk nor to promote its pharmacological benefits, however kudzu has one plus many natural resources do not. There are no signs of an immediate shortage. 

So can the land of moonshine and Jack Daniel’s also be the land of treatment for those who have entered the world of addiction? No one is talking about a medicine that will “fix” the alcoholic. Nor is there a goal to create a pill one can take to drink all night with no consequences. The best case scenario is the research will make a difficult process a little easier. Harold said goodbye to alcohol  through  Alcoholics Anonymous not through medication or a recovery center.  “They taught me ‘there is a God it ain’t you so get out his way and let it work.’ For the first time I felt like I was at home,” he remembers. He had to give up places he used to enjoy and many of his friends but not all of his them. “The friends I have now if they saw me with a drink in my hands – the true friends- they would kick my ass!”

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There is an old joke in the South. How do you plant kudzu? Cut of a one foot vine, throw it on the ground and run!


Understanding the Brain, by Dr Jeanette Norden from The Great Courses, assisted greatly with background for this article.

Discover Magazine, July, 2005

The Fix, June, 2011

National Geographic, August, 2009

NIAAA Spectrum