Helping alcohol cravings

Alcohol can, in moderate doses, be a pleasant thing. It quietens your inhibitions and heightens your sense of belonging. Whether you should use a drug, and alcohol is a drug, to do that is another question altogether but there is even evidence that small amounts of alcohol, particularly as beer or wine, can be good for your health. Notice thought that we keep repeating words like “moderate” and “small amounts”…that is because at levels beyond two standard drinks a day alcohol becomes unequivocally harmful. That isn’t an issue if you can stop at one or two glasses but that can be difficult for some people. That is why a herb called Kudzu is of such interest because it has a reputation for reducing alcohol cravings and making you drink less.

Kudzu belongs to the legume family and is related to the pea, soybean, peanut, alfalfa, aster and oat. It is a climbing perennial vine, referred to in China as “The Drunkenness Dispeller”; it has been used for centuries in Eastern Asia for medicinal and culinary purposes. One its major uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been to reduce alcohol cravings. Studies have shown that it does reduce the amount of alcohol that animals will consume and a few human studies have supported this. Now new research from Harvard Medical School has shown significant effects in humans.

For the study researchers tested men and women in their 20s, who consumed alcohol on a regular basis. They were given puerarin, an isoflavone from Kudzu. Each person was given a reclining chair, a TV, a DVD player, and a fridge containing their favourite beer. In the first of three 90 minute sessions the subjects were simply told while they watched DVDs they could consume up to a maximum of six beers.

Then for a week they were given either puerarin or a placebo to take daily. They then returned for another 90 minute session. Then the groups were swapped for another week and those who took puerarin took a placebo and vice versa before coming back for a third 90 minute session.

Those who had a placebo consumed an average 3.5 beers, while those who had puerarin consumed only 2.4 beers on average. So like the mice and hamsters from other trials, humans drink less under the influence of Kudzu.

Although it seems to be effective in reducing alcohol cravings, the question about Kudzu is; how does it work? If it works by making you drunk faster then it is of limited value. To test this Harvard researchers gave twelve participants different schedules of placebo or Kudzu pills, and then observed the effects of drinking a set amount of vodka. They tested steadiness of gait, body sway, how well participants could stand upright, and how drunk they said they felt, among other factors. The researchers found that these types of responses were not intensified if participants had taken kudzu, suggesting that the drug does not work by increasing the intensity or duration of alcohol’s effects.

Despite the significant research that has gone into Kudzu it still remains uncertain exactly how it yields its effects.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine Kudzu is said to be spicy, sweet, and cool. These properties are said to counteract the hot and humid nature that is attributed to alcohol. We can’t delve fully into the TCM explanation of how Kudzu may work and modern science does not seem to be providing a satisfactory biomedical solution. For now we will just have to accept that Kudzu does seem to reduce alcohol cravings. It might be a challenge to our analytical, reductionist thought pattern to just accept that something works without knowing how but, if the evidence is solid enough, isn’t there something liberating in that as well?

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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