Medical Advances

Heavy Drinking – do plant extracts have the answer?

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We are constantly reminded from news articles that many Kiwi’s drink too much. No surprises there. I won’t go into the problems excessive drinking causes, as we all know them. The focus of this article is simply, is there a natural cure?

I first got interested in this subject in 2007 when I read an article about alcohol research involving the Kudzu vine, a plant known by the ancient Chinese as ‘The Drunkenness Dispeller’. Kudzu has been used in Chinese medicine for over 2000 years and, usually taken as a tea.  It is worth noting that anecdotal evidence of herbal health benefits (such as in this Kudzu example) are often examined by western researchers in order to get clues for substances that could be developed into pharmaceutical drugs. This is why such companies send researchers into countries such as China and India. They source natural substances that work, modify them so they are no longer natural, and then patent the modified substance so they can own it, and then market it as a new drug.

In this Kudzu study, Harvard Medical School researchers set up an apartment and enlisted 14 students as ‘guinea pigs’ who were enlisted to use the apartment (at certain times) and drink as much as they wanted from a fridge stocked with beers of their choice. Think they had difficulty getting volunteers?

The students were given either a concentrated extract from the Kudzu plant, or a placebo (a dummy extract with no active ingredients). Only the researchers knew which one they were getting at the time. Every time the students put their drink down, unbeknownst to them, it was being weighed by hidden scales in the table to measure how much they were drinking. The researchers were effectively comparing how much the students drunk while using the real Kudzu extract, and how much they drunk while taking the placebo.
The average amount the students drunk while using the extract was 1.8 drinks per session, while the average amount drunk using the fake extract (placebo) was 3.5 drinks, therefore, the extract of the Kudzu vine almost halved the intake of alcohol.

The researcher, Dr Lukas did not know for sure why this effect occurred, but he hypothesised that the extract sped up the effect of the alcohol and made the students need less alcohol to feel drunk.
It is remarkable to note that 13 of the 14 students drunk less using the Kudzu extract. For this to be a random effect it’s a bit like tossing a coin 14 times and calling it correctly 13 of those times. The researchers are now trying to make a drug based on it, but fortunately, as no one can own the rights to a natural substance, Kudzu extracts are available as a safe, cheap option for those interested.

A second very interesting study I found only last week, and the inspiration for this article, is based on another Chinese plant, an extract from the oriental raisin tree.
The oriental raisin tree has been used as a cure for hangovers for 500 years in China. Scientists have just found that a natural substance in the tree called dihydromyricetin (DHM), effectively blocks intoxication in rats. Rats were given the equivalent alcohol content of a human drinking 15-20 beers in two hours, and timed to see how long it was before they righted themselves. The rats that were not given the DHM took 70 minutes to right themselves, but the rats that were given the DHM righted themselves in just 5 minutes.
In the on-going study, the rats were given a choice of alcohol or sweetened water. It was found that the rats taking DHM did not get addicted to alcohol like normal rats do, and drank much less.
It is thought that the DHM blocks certain reward centres of the brain related to drinking alcohol.

The researchers will use this research as a basis for a new pharmaceutical drug, but so long as it is safe when tested in humans (and 500 years of safe Chinese use would tend to suggest that it is) it should be available as a safe, cheap natural supplement. I will keep you updated on this.

It is interesting to me that in both these research examples, the anecdotal Chinese evidence was the basis for further scientific research confirming the benefits. So, how did the ancient Chinese find out what worked and what did not?? Have fun with that one.

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