A fast-growing vine long considered a nuisance because it takes over everything in its path (including ten million acres in the Southeast) may have redeeming qualities after all. A study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that kudzu, a vine imported from Japan, may help manage metabolic syndrome, a condition that includes a group of risk factors that increase the chance for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. The risk factors include at least three of the following: large waist, 40 inches or larger for men and 35 inches or larger for women; low levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol; high levels of triglycerides (blood fats); high blood pressure and high blood sugar (glucose).

For the study, conducted at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a group of female rats with metabolic syndrome was given a diet supplemented with kudzu extract. After two months the kudzu-fed rats were leaner than the rats not fed kudzu and they had healthier levels of blood pressure, insulin, and cholesterol than their study counterparts.

It's thought that puerarin, an isoflavone found only in kudzu root, may be the reason for the beneficial effects, because, say researchers, puerarin helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol and regulates blood sugar. High amounts of glucose in the blood are associated with diabetes and obesity. It appears that puerarin is effective because it routes glucose to places in the body where it's useful, such as in muscles, and away from fat cells and blood vessels. In addition to puerarin, kudzu also contains other useful isoflavones, including daidzein, an anti-inflammatory agent and genistein, an antileukemic agent.

But don't rush out to your nearest health food store for a bottle of kudzu supplements just yet. While kudzu looks promising in the battle against metabolic syndrome in laboratory studies, trials need to be done to determine its efficacy and safety in humans. And while no side effects were found in the laboratory rats taking kudzu, women with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer, as well as anyone taking antidiabetic drugs or the breast cancer drug tamoxifen, should avoid taking kudzu extract.

If you have risk factors for metabolic syndrome, talk to your doctor about how to reduce your chances of developing health problems. Losing weight; maintaining a moderate level of physical activity for 60 minutes a day, five days a week, but preferably daily; quitting smoking; and eating a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, including fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and tuna, whole grains, fruits such as apples, oranges and pears and legumes such as kidney beans, lentils and lima beans, will help lower your risk for metabolic syndrome.