Looking for a Non-Traditional Way to Shake Off What Ails You? Kudzu May Be What You're After

The Vine That Ate the South isn't a cure-all, but it may be worth asking about.
Robin Duchesneau displays a young kudzu shoot in Poplarville, MS.
Robin Duchesneau displays a young kudzu shoot in Poplarville, MS.

People in the service industry work long and irregular hours, often without a break. Shift meals may not provide the most nutritious options, and restaurants rarely offer health insurance or paid leave when an employee gets sick. These realities leave some servers, bartenders, and cooks looking for non-traditional ways to combat illness, fatigue, and a quick recovery from hangovers — all common ailments when one works in an environment with ever-flowing booze.

Enter kudzu, a plant long heralded in Asia for its health benefits in treating many illnesses, including diabetes, hypertension, and the symptoms of menopause. Some studies suggest that the plant may help heavy drinkers cut back on their alcohol consumption, though the science is not clear on it.

Is the “Vine That Ate the South” the cure to (almost) everything that ails us?

A weed with a strong spirit

Most residents of the American South have seen kudzu, but very few have eaten it. The leafy green vine, part of the legume family, is native to South Asia and was introduced to the United States in the late 19th century as a decorative vine. In the Northeast, harsh winters largely controlled the plant’s spread, and it grew tamely along front porches and gazebos. The federal government decided to use kudzu to help control erosion in the Southeast. They planted it everywhere, and it grew like crazy. Kudzu spread rapidly over uncultivated land, covering trees as well as telephone and electric poles, edging up to roadsides in rural areas.

“The name comes from the Japanese word for the plant – kuzu,” says Robin Duchesneau. Duchesneau lives in Poplarville, Mississippi, where he hosts workshops on sacred gardening and alternative medicine. He also lives next to a giant kudzu patch. “You can look at this plant and see that it has a strong spirit. Look at the way that it grows. It’s unsurprising that it has an impact on the human body,” he says.

Duchesneau's kudzu field flourishes in Poplarville, MS. Duchesneau's kudzu field flourishes in Poplarville, MS.

Duchesneau cooks with kudzu, adding leaves to everything from lasagna to hummus. More commonly, those interested in kudzu’s medicinal qualities consume the root. It is often ground and sold in a variety of supplements these days.

Evidence that kudzu root discourages drinking first appeared in a 2005 Harvard study, which showed that experiment participants drank one to two fewer beers per setting after consuming kudzu root. Researchers at the school replicated this study in 2012 and found similar results. Another Harvard study in 2011 indicated that participants did not drink less because they became intoxicated more quickly. At this point, kudzu research has been done with sample sizes too small to definitely prove that kudzu treats alcoholism. So far, research indicates that it makes people drink less, but researchers don’t know why (yet).

A root in Chinese medicine

Mentions of kudzu as a medicinal treatment go back more than 2,000 years. The Shennong Ben Cao Jing, a Chinese text on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), includes a recipe for kudzu root water, believed to have been written around 250 AD. TCM practitioner Wang Pang says, “Ge Gen [Chinese name for kudzu root] is most effective for diabetes because it helps with thirst. It clears excess heat. For a drinking issue, I would recommend consulting a TCM doctor for a proper diagnosis, and the root of the problem, because different pathology would require different herbs.”

Much of kudzu's effect on health is still uncertain, so it's wise to consult a doctor before taking a kudzu supplement, especially if you’re on other medication. It may decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills, for example, and interfere with heart medicine, drugs that help blood clotting, or medicine for diabetes. (See "interactions" here.)

It may also be difficult to find a supplement with adequate quantities of kudzu root. A 2016 BBC investigation found that herbal remedies contained nowhere near the quantities of kudzu root advertised on the label, and in the United States, the FDA regulates supplements less stringently than prescription medications.

Kudzu is generally considered safe for most people, but please refer to this list of possible side effects for further information. And, of course, speak to a doctor about any concerns you may have regarding the consumption of kudzu.

Meghan Holmes is a New Orleans-based writer and documentarian. She has a master's degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and her work often focuses on food, culture, and the environment.

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