Psychotropic Plants

Areca nut | Mild High but Long Term Health Problems

Areca nuts, also known as betel nuts, are fruits produced on the Areca palm tree (Areca catechu). The nuts are treated like chewing tobacco and are chewed for a mild sedative and relaxing effect.

Although the effects are similar to tobacco, the plants don’t contain any nicotine. They contain a different compound that has been linked to some alarming health conditions.

Dried Areca nuts | Photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari on Wikimedia Commons

What are the active compounds in Areca nut?

The main compound found with Areca nuts is arecoline. It’s a mildly addictive alkaloid that’s often likened to nicotine as they produce similar effects. When chewed, Areca nuts can produce a mild high and an increase in energy and even memory retention.

Arecoline is however an extremely toxic alkaloid and it’s been linked to many harmful cancers and diseases.

What effect does Areca nut have on the body?

Like nicotine, arecoline has been widely studied. Long-term use has been linked to cancers of the mouth and esophagus. It can also cause long-term respiratory problems and cancers within other areas of the body. 

There’s also a risk of diabetes and chronic kidney disease, as areca nut affects blood sugar and arecoline is processed in the kidneys. Overall it’s considered a very unsafe plant to chew or consume.

Long-term users will often develop a red mouth and lips due to an oily residue found inside. After chewing on areca nuts and leaves, this residue is spat out.

Red Areca nuts | Photo by LBM1948 on Wikimedia Commons

Does Areca nut have medical benefits?

Studies have shown that arecoline does have several small benefits. Within one scientific study, it was shown to improve the cognitive abilities of participants. This led to scientists exploring the possibility of arecoline as a drug to treat Alzheimer’s.

It has also been shown to reduce depression because of its stimulating and relaxation effects. However, scientists generally conclude that the carcinogenic effects outweigh any positive benefits.

Cultural uses of Areca nut

Despite the extensive list of harmful side effects, Areca nuts are still used in several cultures within Asia. Like cigarettes, Areca nuts are generally touted as a public health problem.

Traditional uses of areca nut

Records of areca nut chewing date back thousands of years. Archaeologists have discovered burial sites in the Philippines where the teeth of some skeletons have been stained by red residue.

A woman preparing Areca nut wrapped in betel leaves. | Photo by Jack at Wikipedia

Traditionally Areca nut is wrapped in betel leaves which add a mild peppery flavor, these wrapped pieces are known as quids. The Areca nut is usually thinly sliced and sprinkled with powdered lime or crushed seashell powder. It became a well-established part of many Asian cultures. From India and Sri Lanka to Cambodia and the Solomon Islands. Like kratom leaves and the culturally important and psychoactive kava plant, Areca nut became a habitual part of social gatherings.

Quids being prepared in Myanmar | Photo by Vyacheslav Argenberg on Wikimedia Commons

The nuts have also been used in medicinal cures too. In Ayurvedic medicine, it has been used as a digestive aid and breath freshener. In other traditional medicines, it has been used as a cure for tapeworm and also schizophrenia.

What do Areca nuts look like?

Areca nuts are technically not nuts, but seeds. They form within green to orange Areca fruits that grow in dense clusters. The areca palm tree itself is a medium-sized palm with a narrow trunk.

Areca nut fruits | Photo by Masum-al-hasan on Wikimedia Commons

Where does the Areca palm grow?

Because of the high cultural value of these palms, they can be found growing in many locations throughout Asia. They’re native to most tropical areas in Asia, Africa, and islands in the Pacific. Many believe it could have originated in the Philippines, as this is where the oldest archaeological records are located.

Cultivated Areca nut trees | Photo by Nazmulhuqrussell on Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

Areca nuts are still widely used today, especially in Papua New Guinea and Malaysia. Many local governments struggle with enforcing health advice as areca nuts are so deeply ingrained within cultures.

Featured Image: Areca fruits photo by Forest and Kim Starr on Wikimedia Commons

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