Betel Nut (Areca Nut) Use: Effects & Dangers
About 10% of the world’s population consumes betel nut.
Particularly popular in Asian countries, this nut is said to help treat a variety of health problems. However, these claims have not been supported by research. In fact, many public health experts warn that betel poses serious risks, including addiction.
What Is Betel Nut?
Betel nut (also called areca nut) is a seed of a type of palm tree called Areca catechu or Areca palm. This tree grows in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the tropical Pacific, and certain parts of east Africa.
The betel nut is popular in many different countries, including:
- India (where it’s known as supari)
- Bangladesh (where it’s known as gua)
- Sri Lanka (where it’s known as puwak)
- Thailand (where it’s known as mak)
- Malaysia (where it’s known as pinang)
- Papua New Guinea (where it’s known as aka)
Most people consume betel nut by chewing it. Some chew the nut by itself, while others chew betel quids.
A betel quid (also called paan) is a mixture of sliced or ground up betel nut, betel leaves (also called piper betle), and slaked lime. It may also contain tobacco and flavoring agents such as cardamom, nutmeg, and coconut.
Effects Of Betel Nut Use
Betel quid chewing (also called betel nut chewing or areca nut chewing) has stimulant effects. In particular, it can increase your energy, heart rate, and blood pressure. This is probably because betel nut contains alkaloids (organic compounds) that release adrenaline.
Like other stimulant drugs (such as caffeine and nicotine), betel nut can also boost your sense of joy and well-being.
In addition, some people claim that betel nut can help treat various health conditions, including:
- schizophrenia, a mental health condition that disrupts your sense of reality
- glaucoma, a group of eye conditions that can cause vision loss
- digestive problems
Researchers have not yet determined whether betel nut actually helps these conditions.
Dangers Of Betel Nut Use
The use of betel nut can have unpleasant side effects, including:
- red mouth, lips, and stool
- heart palpitations
- nausea and vomiting
- shortness of breath
In addition, it can increase your risk of the following health problems:
In 2003, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that betel nut is a carcinogen (a compound that causes cancer).
In particular, betel nut use can cause oral submucous fibrosis, a type of lesion that can lead to oral cancer. This might be because the main psychoactive ingredient in betel nut, which is called arecoline, can impact the oral mucosa (the soft tissue lining the inside of your mouth).
According to BBC News, over 5,000 Taiwanese men are diagnosed with oral submucous fibrosis and oral cancer every year, and up to 90% of them chew betel nuts.
Betel nut use is also a risk factor for other types of cancer, including cancers of the liver and uterus.
Problems With Pregnancy & Breastfeeding
Chewing betel nut while pregnant leads to higher incidences of preterm birth, low birth weight, and low birth length.
In addition, chemicals from the betel nut can pass into breastmilk and cause issues for a breastfeeding baby.
Interactions With Other Drugs
Betel nut can have dangerous interactions with other drugs and supplements. For example, you may experience anxiety, heart problems, and other side effects if you use betel nut while taking a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).
MAOIs are antidepressants that include phenelzine (Nardil), selegiline (Emsam), and tranylcypromine (Parnate).
Also, mixing betel nut with the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin can cause mouth sores.
Other medications that may interact negatively with betel nut include donepezil (Aricept), which can help treat Alzheimer’s disease, and pilocarpine (Pilocar), which can help treat glaucoma.
Physical Dependence & Addiction
According to a medical review published in the Indian Journal of Medical and Paediatric Oncology, betel net chewing can cause physical dependence and addiction, especially among frequent chewers.
Physical dependence means your body starts relying on betel nut to function normally. If you stop using it, you may experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, mood swings, and trouble sleeping.
Addiction means you feel unable to stop using betel nut even if you want to. Like other types of addiction, betel nut addiction can be treated with recovery-focused services such as therapy and support groups.
In addition, some studies suggest that medications used to treat nicotine addiction, such as varenicline, may also help treat betel nut addiction.
Other health risks associated with betel nut use include:
- gum problems
- tooth decay
- increased fluid secretions in the lung, which can worsen lung conditions like asthma
- metabolic syndrome
- heart disease
- heart attack, especially in people who already have heart disease
Betel nut use may also worsen symptoms of preexisting stomach ulcers, urinary tract obstructions, and gastrointestinal tract blockages.
If you or someone you love feels unable to stop using betel nut, please reach out to a Recovering Champions specialist. Our compassionate healthcare providers offer personalized, evidence-based treatments to help you or your loved one stay healthy.
Recovering Champions Editorial Team
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This page does not provide medical advice.