Super foods

Kudzu Root – The definitive guide

A Versatile and Controversial Plant

Story Highlights

  • Kudzu has been used in China as a traditional medical treatment for diabetes, alcoholism, cardiovascular disease, diarrhea and dysentery, gastroenteritis, fever, and deafness for 2,000 years.
  • Kudzu originated in China and East Asia and was eventually brought to the United States via Japan.
  • Due to Kudzu’s amazing rate of growth (up to 30 meters per season) and its ability to smother an entire forest with its leaves, it is considered a noxious weed by the United States government.
  • Many parts of the kudzu vine are edible including its leaves, blossoms, shoots, and roots which can be used in baked goods, soups, smoothies, teas, and a variety of other dishes.
  • Kudzu root extract contain powerful isoflavones like puerarin that have been scientifically supported to treat and prevent a variety of medical issues.
Kudzu is a semi-woody climbing or trailing vine considered to be very aggressive and difficult to control. It grows well in a multitude of soils, but prefers locations with abundant sunlight such as forest edges and abandoned fields. 1 In fact, Kudzu can grow an amazing 10-30 meters within a single season. If left unchecked, Kudzu can utterly lay waste to an entire forest by smothering other plants with its leaves! For these reasons, it is often referred to in the United States as a pest and is classified as an invasive noxious weed. 2 3 Much recent focus by the United States government has been to control the weed, while others have decided to take advantage of its many versatile uses and harvest the abundance of wild growing vines in the Southern United States. It is still commonly used and revered in its East Asian regions of origin, where cooler winters may limit growth to more manageable rates.

Appearance and Growth Patterns

Kudzu is a beautiful vine with individual purple flowers that hang in attractive clusters and give off a strong fragrance. 4 Some people describe the fragrance as an overpowering grape-like scent that can be smelled from far away. 5 Even bees that predominantly collect its pollens will produce a purple shade of grape-flavored honey! 6 Its leaves are many and dense, with three distinct lobes. 7 The vine itself can become massive as it reproduces through its root system and the spread of seeds from pods that develop in the fall. 8 9

Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.

– Buddha

Etiology and Names

While many botanists may consider Kudzu problematic, East Asian countries have appreciated and cultivated its benefits for over two thousand years. 10 Native to the warm tropical environments of China, Japan and Thailand, Kudzu [Pueraria lobata] or [Pueraria montana] is a part of the genus Pueraria – a pea and bean family. 11 Pueraria refers to the botanist Marc Nicolas Puerari, while Lobata is derived from the Greek word lobos commemorating the plant’s three-lobed leaves. The common English name Kudzu is a translated version of its Japanese counterpart Kuzu (koo-zoo); 12 in China the herb is typically referred to as gé gēn.

Ancient Chinese Medicinal Practices

The first documented instances of medical applications for Kudzu root have been attributed to a “Divine Farmer” deity from 2nd century China called Shennong. While the earliest possible versions of his attributed writings have been lost, what is known today is derived from a publication called the Shennong Bencao Jing, published in the 6th century with notations delineating words copied directly from these lost documents. 13 Based on these writings, Chinese medicine has used Kudzu to address a variety of medical ailments including: mild fever, thirst, migraine and other forms of headache, diarrhea, allergies, alcoholism, sprains, and neck pain related to hypertension. 14

Introduction and Cultivation in the United States

Kudzu was introduced in the United States via Japan in 1876 for its ornamental beauty, ability to feed livestock, reduce soil erosion, and other uses (e.g., starch, cloth, and paper products). 15 16 Interestingly, in its native habitat of East Asia, Kudzu is not considered a noxious weed like it is in the United States. Some scientists suggest this is the result of its transplantation into a non-native habitat. 17 In the mountainous regions of Japan, for instance, the winters cause the plant to die back and limit the spread of the vines, unlike the growth experienced with warmer winters in southern regions of the United States. 18

Nutritional Content and Constituents

Macronutrients, Vitamins, Minerals

Kudzu root is known to contain 99.6% starch and .4% water and is therefore primarily a carbohydrate. Unprocessed roots have also been documented to contain small amounts of protein and many other vitamins and minerals (e.g., calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, potassium). 19

Medicinally Active and Other Constituents

Isoflavones including puerarin, daidzin, daidzein, methylpuerarin, and daidzein glucopyranoside comprise the group of medicinally active constituents in kudzu. Furthermore, dried Kudzu contains almost twice as much isoflavones by volume compared to soybeans, 1% and .6% total content respectively. 20 The vast majority of studies assessing kudzu root medicinal properties utilize extracts of concentrated isoflavones from the root. Other constituents of kudzu include β-sitosterol stigmasterol, puerarinxyloside or PG-2, arachidic acid, spinasterol, glycosides (kudzusaponins A1, A2, Ar, SA4, SB1), and sterols. 21

Harvesting Kudzu

Kudzu is not just for curing what ails you! You may find it enjoyable to eat regardless of its purported medicinal properties. 22 23

There are several steps involved when harvesting kudzu for consumption. While each step is important, perhaps the most important is to ensure you are actually harvesting kudzu. Also take care that you are not harvesting kudzu that has been sprayed with chemicals or grows near contaminated areas (e.g., waste dumps, roadways). Unfortunately, this particular vine can sometimes resemble other poisonous plants (e.g., poison ivy). When attempting to gather wild kudzu, it may be best to study its appearance, bring some pictures for reference, and wear protective clothing.

1. Harvest the edible parts of the plant only, leaving the vine (i.e., leaves, shoots, blossoms, roots).
2. Take care to clean and wash everything you harvest thoroughly.
3. Decide how you will use the various harvested parts of the kudzu plant and get cooking.

How to consume Kudzu?

Extracts and Supplements

The isoflavones in kudzu have been studied extensively for their effects on a variety of health-related issues and have been used in both tablet and injection delivery methods. Issues with the thickening properties of kudzu have lead researchers to rely more on concentrated extracts via tablets or IV drips. Kudzu supplements are available on the market today, but do not confuse them with extracts used in published scientific experiments. A common dosage for commercially available supplements is 10mg kudzu extract per tablet. 24 You may be disappointed to find most supplements are much weaker and contain less kudzu content than dosages provided to participants in studies. Always follow the instructions provided on the supplement bottle, and be sure to discuss any supplements you take with your physician.

Kudzu Root Tea

A more popular form of consumption, kudzu root tea, is prized for its potential health benefits in both China and Japan. 25 Kudzu leaves typically create a tea with a fragrant and sweet flavor profile. Keep in mind that commercially prepared kudzu tea will likely contain other ingredients (e.g., gingerroot, ephedra, cinnamon). If you want something more simplistic, try making your own tea at home from roots or leaves.

For root tea:
1. Harvest and wash young, tender roots.
2. Dice and add to boiling water.
3. Continue to boil roots to your preferred strength.
4. Strain the roots from the water.
5. Add sweetener (if desired) such as honey.

For leaf tea:
1. Add chopped young leaves to simmering water. One cup of leaves to every quart (more or less based on personal preference).
2. Simmer to desired strength and strain leaves from the water.
3. Add sweetener (if desired) such as honey and even other herbs such as mint.

Modern Cooking Techniques

There are a myriad of ways in which you can prepare this versatile plant and so many recipes to choose from online. Here are a few suggestions:

a. Young leaves

i. Eat raw in a salad, or (like spinach) juice with smoothies.
ii. Chop and add to baked goods.
iii. Dry and store to use as tea.

b. Mature (older) leaves

i. Fry in oil, much like kale chips.
ii. Use as a wrap for other foods.

c. Shoots

i. Eat cooked, much like a stalk of asparagus.
ii. Add young shoots to salads – they taste like snow peas.

d. Blossoms

i. Process into pickles, candy, or jellies.
ii. Dip in batter and fry.

e. Roots

i. Edible source of starch, or a thickening agent.
ii. Fire-roast raw roots, or remove the outer bark and roast in the oven.
iii. Grind into a dried powder to use in a variety of dishes (this is time consuming).

Dosage Recommendations

While studies have assessed the effects of a variety of kudzu doses for many ailments, dosage recommendations vary based on numerous considerations including the goal of treatment and delivery method. It would be prudent to review dosages from studies based on your particular medical goals and read about the relative safety of the dosages provided to participants in relevant studies.

As always, please confer with your physician prior to beginning a kudzu regimen of any form (e.g., supplements, extracts, raw plant components, teas). Below are some dosages that have been evaluated in peer reviewed publications or have been taken from the Chinese Pharmacopoeia (1985) 26 with little to no documentation of side effects for participants or patients.

Delivery Method Recommended Dosage Recommended Frequency Treatment Goal Reference Studies
Raw Roots 9-15 g Daily NA Chinese Pharmacopoeia (1985 ed.)
Standardized Root Tablets 10 mg (1.5 g crude root per tablet) 2-3 Times, Daily NA Chinese Pharmacopoeia (1985 ed.)
Root Extract 30-120 mg 2-3 Times, Daily NA Chinese Pharmacopoeia (1985 ed.)
Pueraria Flavone Tablets 90-300 mg Daily Coronary Heart Disease & Angina Pectoris (Pharmacology and Applications of Chinese Materia Medica. Singapore : World Scientific, 1986)
Puerarin Injection 500 mg Daily, Two-Week Period Acute Myocardial Infarction (Study on the effect and mechanism of puerarin on the size of infarction in patients with acute myocardial infarction, Chinese Journal of Integrated Traditional and Western Medicine, Vol. 24, pp. 790-792)

Table: Some Evaluated Dosages of Kudzu by Treatment Goal and Delivery Method

9 Potential Health Benefits of Consuming Kudzu

Keep in mind that not all experimental and correlational studies are the same, and take your time to evaluate published studies with respect to the validity and generalizability of findings. As the results of a single study do not prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt, healthy levels of skepticism are typically warranted and encouraged within the scientific community.

With these considerations in mind, below is a summary of just some of the body of literature that examines medicinal properties of kudzu. The information provided is organized with respect to treatment goals.

Kudzu-health-benefits-Infographics

Alcoholism

Kudzu has been used in Chinese culture to curb alcoholic tendencies for over two thousand years. 27 Since this time, researchers have only recently started to dedicate more interest into understanding the relationship between constituents of kudzu and its observed effects on alcoholism. Socioeconomic impacts and detriments to health resulting from this disease have increased its prominence prompting more in-depth research into kudzu treatment options. 28 Initial studies assessing the effects of kudzu on alcohol intake and withdrawal symptoms were conducted with various animals including rats and monkeys 29 and hamsters. 30 Based on these studies, two pure compounds found in kudzu are of particular interest to researchers: daidzin and puerarin (also known as NPI-031G). 31

Daidzin

This constituent is an isoflavonoid found in kudzu root. While it is clear that this particular isoflavone suppresses alcohol consumption in many studies conducted with several animal species, 32 33 34 the underlying mechanisms for this suppression remains unclear. 35

Puerarin (NPI-031G)

Puerarin is most concentrated isoflavonoid in kudzu root, yet it is ironically less potent than daidzin. This particular constituent does not seem to affect food intake, water intake, general activity, or social behavior of animal subjects, but it does result in an average decreased alcohol intake of 25%. 36

Human Subjects

Two studies were identified in the literature assessing the effects of kudzu root on alcoholism in humans: one with alcoholic adult participants 37 and one with healthy adults that consumed moderate amounts of alcohol. 38 Shebek and Rindone (2000) conducted a randomized, double-blind, controlled clinical trial as a pilot study assessing the effects of kudzu root extract on the drinking behaviors of 38 veterans in a substance abuse treatment program. 39 In order to understand how the treatment affected reported levels of sobriety and cravings for alcohol, participants responded to a visual analogue scale ranging from 0 to 10 rating sobriety and cravings as high (10) or low (0). A comparison of control and experimental groups indicated there were no significant differences between groups. Kudzu root did not affect levels of sobriety or cravings of alcohol within a one-month treatment period. While these results may seem disappointing, it is unknown whether different results would be obtained with individuals suffering from less severe alcoholism, or with a larger number of participants (i.e., 38 is an insufficient number of participants to draw conclusions).

There is still much speculation on the underlying mechanisms of recent successes with kudzu root treatments for alcohol consumption in other animal species. Penetar, MacLean, McNeil and Lukas (2011) have suggested that kudzu may in fact exaggerate the effects of alcohol, thereby reducing or delaying the organism’s desire for additional consumption. 40 To evaluate this hypothesis, 12 healthy adults that reportedly consumed moderate amounts of alcohol (i.e., approximately 7.8 drinks per week) were included in their double-blind, controlled crossover study. Participants were either given a daily total isoflavone dosage of 750 mg/d kudzu extract or an equal dosage of placebo over a 9 day period. Alcohol was provided on days 8 and 9 of the study to assess for any significant differences between groups. No significant differences were found with respect to peak plasma alcohol levels or participants’ subjective and psychomotor effects. These findings were interpreted to suggest kudzu’s underlying mechanisms for reducing alcohol intake are not related to an altered sense of intoxication that decreases the desire for more alcohol.

There are so many questions that must still be addressed to truly understand the ways in which kudzu extract may affect alcohol consumption in humans. There is a paucity of research in this area requiring many more studies to replicate and extend the findings of both Shebek & Rindone (2000) and Penetar et al. (2011). While these studies have not produced significant results, there are many limitations that must be addressed before any conclusions are drawn.

Breast Cancer and Menopause

Kudzu root isoflavones such as puerarin and daidzin are part of a group of dietary estrogens called phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens bind to estrogen receptors in the body and affect related processes. Kudzu root has been promoted as a hormone replacement therapy based on these binding properties. Applications include reduction or prevention of perimenopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, and breast cancer. However, reviews of scientific publications suggest there is little evidence to support these claims. 41 One study published in 2010 warns that the isoflavone content of kudzu is approximately ten times greater than soy products. They recommend women suffering from breast cancer, particularly the hormone-sensitive form of the disease, avoid any supplements containing kudzu. 42 While one pilot study documented a 46% decrease in menopausal symptoms for healthy female participants, 43 much more research is needed to understand the effects of kudzu on hormone health. 44 This is particularly true for woman with hormone-sensitive cancers.

Cardiac Health and Related Disease

Kudzu puerarin extract has been suggested to improve vascular structure and function in coronary patients with little to no adverse effects. 45 Puerarin is also scientifically supported as a safe and effective secondary prevention strategy for adults with cardiac health risks. 46 Moreover, a recent review of the literature identified studies with findings supporting the use of kudzu isoflavones like puerarin in the treatment of blood pressure and heart rate, heart attack prevention, and the promotion of new blood vessels. 47

Inflammation and Inflammatory Disease

Kudzu roots and isoflavone constituents have been found to provide therapeutic and preventative benefits for various inflammatory diseases and diseases related to oxidative stress. Some preliminary work in this area has found potential benefits with auto-immune arthritis in mice, 48 and the attenuation of asthmatic symptoms in mice and rats. 49

Eye Sight

Both age-related macular degeneration and ischemic retinopathy (sudden vision loss) are the result of a lack of blood circulation in the eye. Puerarin has been found to increase ocular blood flow in choroidal blood vessels in an RTC study with New Zealand white rabbits and rats. 50 The authors concluded that puerarin can facilitate recovery of eye sight in patients suffering from ischemic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.

Kidney Disease and Diabetic Nephropathy (DN)

Diabetic nephropathy is a common cause of late-stage kidney disease that occurs in 20-40% of diabetic patients. 51 For many with this diagnosis, renal failure will potentially occur. A meta-analysis of ten separate RTCs including a combined total of 669 participants found that puerarin may benefit individuals with DN. The vast majority of the studies included in the review reported improved measures of proteinuria in subjects when treated with a combination of puerarin and angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor (ACEI) compared to ACEI alone. 52

Migraines and Headaches

One study was identified assessing kudzu extracts effects on cluster headaches with 16 participants that reportedly used over the counter kudzu supplements to self-treat. 53 A correlational analysis based on data collected with interviews of participants found that 69% saw a decrease in intensity, 56% experienced a decrease in frequency, and 31% a decrease in duration. Little to no side effects were reported. This study was preliminary in nature and too small to draw strong conclusions. More work in this area is necessary.

Stroke

Zheng and colleagues (2017) conducted a meta-analysis of RTCs to assess the efficacy of kudzu extract (i.e., puerarin) injections for acute ischemic stroke. 54 Thirty-five studies, and a total of 3,224 participants, were included in their analysis. Overall, puerarin injections performed better than placebo in 32 trials. Additionally, 16 trials reported improvements with neurological deficits following the injection. There were several non-fatal side effects reported across studies including facial flushing, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal discomforts and allergic reactions. The relative safety and potential effectiveness of this treatment warrant additional studies.

Weight Reduction

One RTC was identified that assessed the effects of a kudzu flower extract in 81 obese males and females. Subjects were divided into three groups consuming a treatment food over a 12-week period containing: [1] 300mg extract, [2] 200 mg extract, or [3] placebo. Reductions in visceral fat and overall BMI were observed in treatment conditions. Much more research is needed before any conclusions may be drawn about the potential effects of blossom extracts on obesity.

Precautions and Contraindications

The vast majority of studies have reported few and reasonably insignificant side effects for the use of kudzu supplements and extracts for a variety of medical applications. 55 There are special considerations for individuals that may be pregnant or breastfeeding. Additionally, kudzu is never recommended in supplement form for children. Individuals with bleeding or clotting disorders, cardiovascular health problems, diabetes, and hormone-sensitive cancers should speak with their doctor prior to taking any kudzu supplements or consuming kudzu.
As mentioned previously, kudzu isoflavones like puerarin attach to estrogen-receptors in the body. Take caution when consuming kudzu products and supplements as they may affect the effectiveness of birth control pills. The following medications may be contraindicated in conjunction with kudzu products and supplements: anticoagulants/antiplatelet drugs, Methotrexate, and Tamoxifen.

Summary

Kudzu is one of the oldest and most revered herbal treatments of Ancient China and other parts of East Asia. Astonishingly, the scientific community has only begun to consider its applications in earnest. Based on the existing body of literature, kudzu appears to be relatively safe for most healthy people. While much more research is warranted to truly understand the impacts of kudzu on specific medical conditions and our health, we do know it contains concentrated isoflavones. Kudzu also has antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. So consider incorporating this versatile and enjoyable plant into your life, whether it be through supplements or harvested raw plant ingredients.

References


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Krista Saksena

Krista received her Master’s Degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from California State University, Sacramento in 2016. In practice, Krista provides feeding and nutrition therapy services to children diagnosed with developmental disabilities. However, her Masters training provided a litany of opportunities to write for publications in peer-reviewed journal articles where she developed her appreciation for comprehensive literature reviews. Krista has contributed to text-book chapters, academic manuscripts, and a variety of online publications covering diverse topics.

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