Are there any herbal remedies for alcoholism or alcohol abuse?
Yes. An extract from the kudzu vine - which grows wild all over the South, and in China and Japan - appears to be effective at reducing the amount of alcohol a person drinks, according to a placebo-controlled study published this spring by researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.
The only catch is that the formulation of kudzu that proved effective in the study is not yet available in health food stores, though it may be within a year. The forms of kudzu that are currently available may be too weak to work, said the study's author, Dr. Scott Lukas, director of behavioral psychopharmacology research.
Kudzu, which appears to have no adverse side effects, is an herb that Chinese traditional healers have been using for centuries to treat alcohol intoxication and hangovers, according to Raye Litten, a physiologist and associate director of treatment and recovery research at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Across the South, kudzu is regarded as a nuisance vine and invasive pest because it spreads quickly and crowds out other plants.
Although the research on kudzu for alcohol problems is still preliminary, Litten said, it is promising enough that the government agency is funding further research into the herb and its active ingredients, puerarin, daidzin and daidzein.
In the McLean study, which appeared in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, Lukas and his team showed that binge drinkers who took kudzu drank substantially less than normal - 1.8 beers per session rather than 3.5.
Kudzu does not appear to decrease consumption by acting on the liver enzymes that metabolize alcohol, as the drug Antabuse does, Lukas said. Nor does it appear to be acting directly on GABA or serotonin receptors in the brain.
Rather, it appears to act by increasing blood flow to the brain. If kudzu makes alcohol get to the brain more quickly, it could lead drinkers to feel satisfied sooner and thus turn off the craving for more, Lukas added.
I've heard that kids' vinyl lunch boxes contain lead. Is this true?
It's probably true, but we won't know if it's cause for concern until more data are available.
On Aug. 31, the Center for Environmental Health, an environmental watchdog group in California, filed a lawsuit against four retailers and two producers of the soft, colorful lunch boxes.
In the group's testing, 17 of roughly 100 lunch boxes had more than the federal limit for lead, said Lara Cushing, the group's research director. Lead, which is commonly used to keep plastics from degrading, was found on the surface of the plastic and was picked up by simple swab testing.
As soon as the suit was filed, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that it, too, is looking into the safety of the lunch boxes. "We are taking this very seriously," said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the independent federal agency, which has the power to recall products.
But Dr. Michael Shannon, director of the Lead Poisoning Treatment program at Children's Hospital in Boston said, "It sounds to me like making a mountain out of a molehill. While it's true that plastics can contain leachable lead, the lining either has to have direct contact with food for an extended period of time or be eaten. Short of that, I don't see how it could result in a significant amount of lead exposure.
"While we worry about lead exposure in any child," he added, "the critical window of exposure is up to 6 years old; and children that young don't usually carry lunch boxes."
What parents can do is make sure food is wrapped. Foods with tough skins, such as apples, are not permeable to lead, though they should be washed before eating.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.