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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Kudzu Medicine

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Ruth Page makes the case for conservation, with kudzu! This exotic weed which is overgrowing in the southern U.S. has long been recognized in Chinese folk medicine for its powerful cures.


CURWOOD: The smarter we are, the more we know what we don't know. And the one thing we are profoundly ignorant about, says Living on Earth commentator Ruth Page, is the value of species. Even common weeds.

PAGE: For centuries, oriental healers have used 2 ordinary plants to alleviate diseases that still baffle our Western doctors. Southerners hate kudzu plants; they're like Genghis Khan marching inexorably across any and all open landscape. But kudzu root has long been used in the Orient to cure alcoholism. Tests here show it contains 2 chemicals, daidzin and daidzein, that may do the job. Given a choice between dishes of water and dishes of liquor, hamsters that imbibed the chemicals go to alcohol dishes only half as often as their untreated siblings. Researchers aren't sure why, but suspect the chemicals interfere with the breakdown of alcohol in the body.

The other Chinese remedy battles Alzheimer's disease, one of the most dreaded, difficult, and expensive afflictions in human society. Oriental folk doctors learned that people who drank tea brewed from a certain club moss, Huperzia serrata, found their memories perked right up. If they release that stuff here I'm getting in line.

In recent years researchers at a Shanghai institute isolated a natural compound in the tea that inhibits -- are you paying attention? -- the formation of acetylcholinesterase. We'll call it ACE. ACE is an enzyme that breaks down AC, acetylcholine, which is a key chemical messenger in the brain vital for memory and awareness. The club moss chemical keeps ACE from forming. Science News says the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, is studying the compound, called Huperzine-A.

The human brain needs the AC, acetylcholine, part of ACE, but addition of the E, esterase, destroys it. So during the centuries when the Chinese drank their club moss tea, they were protecting their memories; and modern Western medicine has finally recognized that as fact, not just folklore. Mayo has licensed use of the club moss chemical to a New England company that seeks permission to test it on humans this year. There's been so much of this kind of news lately, it makes you want to save everything from extinction, doesn't it? Who knows what other super cures, or even symptom relievers, nature may be waiting for us to discover in some weed or other greenery that we may not even have heard of yet?

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Ruth Page lives in Burlington, Vermont, and comes to us courtesy of Vermont Public Radio.



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