Those of you who are familiar with the South know what kudzu is. An Asian vine that can grow a foot taller every day, it was brought to the American Southeast in the 1930s in a sadly boneheaded attempt to control erosion. Unfortunately, the little green visitor liked it here so much that in the decades since, it has colonized 10 million acres of farms and woods, becoming a massive and costly nuisance.
Well, scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham may have found a use for kudzu that will make it a bit less of a nuisance. Two months after the UAB researchers began adding kudzu root extract to the diet of laboratory rats, the rats’ cholesterol, blood sugar, insulin, and blood pressure levels were lower than those of rats that did not receive the extract, with no apparent side effects.
The results of the study, which have been published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, could eventually lead to an inexpensive therapy for metabolic syndrome, the cluster of symptoms that often precedes type 2 diabetes.
The researchers found that kudzu root contains isoflavones, substances that improve the high blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose that characterize metabolic syndrome. The isoflavone that seemed to have the most impact, puerarin, is found only in kudzu.
J. Michael Wyss, PhD, a professor in the UAB Department of Cell Biology and lead author of the study, said that while puerarin helped lower blood pressure and cholesterol, its greatest effect is its contribution to glucose regulation. Wyss said that puerarin seems to steer glucose to places where it is beneficial, such as muscles, and away from fat cells and blood vessels.
Kudzu, which is common in China and Japan, has long been used as a dietary supplement in Asian countries, most commonly as a tea or powder. Although the incidence of type 2 diabetes in those countries has increased as people have adopted Western-style diets high in processed sugars and carbohydrates, traditional East Asian societies have low rates of diabetes. It’s possible that the consumption of kudzu extract could be a factor in that good fortune.
The next step will be further research on kudzu’s potential benefits, followed by research on human subjects. Many questions remain to be answered, including who would take a kudzu-based therapy and whether it would be suitable for the very young or for people with cardiovascular problems. Once those questions are answered, kudzu could become a cheap addition to doctors’ medicine cabinets, allowing them to inexpensively supplement other drugs used to regulate metabolic syndrome. Ideally, it would be effective enough to allow doctors to reduce the doses of more expensive drugs.