Betel nut facts

What is betel nut?

Effects of betel nut

Getting help

What is betel nut?

Betel nut (also known as areca nut) is the seed of the fruit from a palm (Areca catchu) belonging to the Palmacae family.

Other names

Betel nut is also commonly called areca nut, but can be known as supai, pan parag, marg, maag, pugua (Guam), suparim (Hindi and Bengali), puwak (Sri Lanka), gua (Sylheti), mak (Thailand), pinang (Sarawak) and daka (Papua New Guinea).

What does it look like?

Some people use the nut when it is unripe and green; others wait until it is ripe and is a brown or orange-yellow colour.

How and why is it used?

The seed is separated from the outer layer of the fruit and may be used fresh, dried, boiled, baked, roasted or cured.

They can be chewed in a similar way to chewing tobacco, producing a mildly euphoric and stimulating effect, and helping reduce tension.

Betel nuts and betel quids are generally chewed for their psychoactive properties that help reduce tension, produce a feeling of wellbeing and facilitate social interactions and strengthen social ties.

Around 10 to 20% of the world's population chews betel nut in some form. This makes it the 4th most widely-used psychoactive substance, after nicotine, alcohol and caffeine.

Betel quids

The most common method of using betel nut is to slice it into thin strips and roll it in a betel leaf (from the Piper betle) with slaked lime (powder) or crushed seashells. This leaf package is generally referred to as a "betel quid", or a "betel nut chew", "betel chew", betel pan (India) or betel paan (India).

Betel quids may also contain tobacco and other additives such as cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, aniseed, coconut, sugar, syrups and fruit extracts, to enhance the flavour.

Sometimes areca nuts are rolled in leaves other than betel leaf, such as a leaf from the rubiaceous plant (Mitrogyna speciosa), nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans), or the pepper plant used in kava (Piper methysticum).

Cultural practice

Betel nut chewing is an important cultural practice in some regions in south and south-east Asia and the Asia Pacific. It has traditionally played an important role in social customs, religious practices and cultural rituals.

Some people from these regions who have settled in other countries have continued their cultural practice of chewing betel nut.

Effects of betel nut

The effects of chewing betel nuts are due to several chemicals, including arecoline, which affects the central and autonomic nervous systems. In betel quids, some of the effects may be due to the types of leaves that are used.

The effects of betel nut are still not fully understood. For example, some claim that chewing betel nuts and betel quids can be used to help treat parasitic infections, strengthen teeth and gums, help with symptoms of mental illness such as schizophrenia, suppress hunger, stimulate appetite, reduce nausea, treat diarrhoea, and act as an aphrodisiac.

At this stage, there is little evidence to support these claims. Research still needs to be done to find out the immediate and long-term effects of chewing betel nut and betel quids, and whether the benefits outweigh the negative side effects.

There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug.

Short-term effects

People who have used betel nut report that the effects are felt quickly—usually beginning within a few minutes and continuing for a couple of hours.

The effects seem to depend on the amount being chewed, and whether the person chews betel nut or betel quids occasionally or on a regular basis. The effects are generally stronger for people who use betel nut occasionally than for those who chew regularly.

Some of the reported immediate effects of chewing betel nut and betel quids include:

  • mild euphoria and a sense of wellbeing
  • increased alertness
  • palpitations and increased heart rate
  • increased blood pressure
  • sweating
  • facial flushing and a warm sensation in the body.

People who are chewing betel nut for the first time, and experienced betel nut consumers who chew a large amount, may also experience:

  • tremor
  • dizziness
  • diarrhoea
  • upset stomach
  • vomiting
  • acute psychosis.

Long-term effects

Excessive long-term use of betel nut and betel quid has been associated with a number of health-related issues and problems such as:

  • discolouration of teeth and gums, sometimes turning reddish-brown
  • mouth ulcers and gum disease
  • oral sub mucous fibrosis and oral cancers
  • peptic ulcers
  • increased risk of heart disease.

Other effects of betel nut use

Using betel nut with other drugs

The risk of developing health problems increases when the betel quids include tobacco.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Read about the risks of drug use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Getting help

Treatment

In Australia, there are many different types of treatments for drug problems. Some aim to help a person to stop using a drug, while others aim to reduce the risks and harm related to their drug use. Find out more about treatment.

What to do if you are concerned about someone’s betel nut use

If you are concerned about someone’s drug use, there is help available. Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.

What to do in a crisis

Always call triple zero (000) if a drug overdose is known or suspected—and remember that paramedics are not obliged to involve the police.

If someone overdoses or has an adverse reaction while using betel nut, it is very important that they receive professional help.

Visit the Better Health Channel to read St John Ambulance’s advice on drug overdose.

Australia's drug policy

Australia’s national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug, through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.