Betel nut chewing originated in the tropical regions of southern Asia, but it has gradually spread to communities in Madagascar, eastern Africa and the West Indies. Quid, or chewable drug, made from betel nut typically contains a combination of betel palm nut, betel vine leaf, lime and tobacco. While this psychoactive product is most commonly used as a recreational drug, it may offer some medicinal or therapeutic properties. However, betel nut chewing has been linked to several serious side effects.
The National Institutes of Health note betel nut's long-standing reputation as a stimulant. Chewed betel nut produces a stimulant response that, in low doses, is similar to caffeine or nicotine. In high doses, betel nut produces cocaine-like effects including elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, dilated pupils, anxiety, insomnia and cardiac arrhythmia.
Betel nut owes its popularity as a recreational drug to its euphoric side-effects. According to the NIH, betel nut chewers report feeling happier, more energetic and more alert when using the product. Some users combine betel nut chewing with other psychoactive herbs, such as ephedra, guarana and tobacco.
The NIH reports that betel nut is potently cholinergic; it powerfully alters the function of certain neurotransmitters and alters the state of the central nervous system. Drugs in this class produce a myriad of side effects including excessive salivation, increased tearing, urinary and fecal incontinence, sweating, diarrhea and vomiting.
Betel nut may be teratogenic, or disruptive to the development of a fetus. The health information website Drugs.com warns pregnant women to avoid chewing betel nut because it can damage an unborn baby's DNA and harm its development.
Betel nut quids, particularly those containing tobacco, cause cancer. The NIH links regular betel nut chewing to cancers of the mouth and esophagus. Additionally, compounds in betel nut can encourage the growth of liver, lung, cervix, stomach, mouth and prostate cancers.