'Mile-a-minute' vine may be nature's antidote to binge-drinking

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The Independent US

The "mile-a-minute" vine, an uncontrollable monster weed, now covers seven million acres of the American south. But the unloved kudzu could have vital social role to offer the US (and Britain) as a cure for binge-drinking.

The "mile-a-minute" vine, an uncontrollable monster weed, now covers seven million acres of the American south. But the unloved kudzu could have vital social role to offer the US (and Britain) as a cure for binge-drinking.

The latest evidence is tantalising, based on a study of just 14 heavy drinkers at the Harvard-affiliated McLean hospital in Massachusetts. But it confirms the findings of experiments on rats and monkeys (and what has been claimed for centuries in China where the vine originated), that chemicals in it reduce human desire for more alcohol.

The key appears to lie in isoflavones, compounds in kudzu roots, that hasten the flow of alcohol to a drinker's brain and the pleasurable sensations associated with it, reducing the need to consume more. Binge-drinkers "drink so darned fast, they don't have the opportunity to perceive the effects of the alcohol", George Lukas, director of the study, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

For his experiment, Mr Lukas enlisted 11 men and three women aged between 21 and 32 to relax in a studio apartment, watching television and films or listening to music, and drinking as much beer as they wanted. This first session lasted 90 minutes, during which participants consumed an average 3.5 beers apiece. They were then sent home and told to take either kudzu extract tablets or a placebo. When they returned two weeks later for a final session in the beer-stocked apartment, those who were given the placebos drank the same.

But those who took kudzu drank barely half as much, 1.8 beers. They also drank more slowly, taking 11 swigs per can, compared to eight before. In contrast to most other anti-alcohol drugs, there were no side-effects, Mr Lukas reported.

Binge-drinking is a major social problem in the US, where surveys show that in an average month, one-third of adult drinkers indulge in it, generally defined as five drinks in a session for men, and four for women. Studies link it to the high US minimum age of 21 for legal drinking. But frequently binge-drinking continues into middle age. The problem is worse in Britain, where antisocial behaviour orders are used to tackle binge-drinking and the mayhem it can cause.

The vine was introduced in 1876 at the Philadelphia Exposition to mark the 100th anniversary of American independence. Admired for its handsome flowers, it was used first for animal forage, then to combat soil erosion during the Great Depression. But kudzu's finest hour may be yet to come.

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