Nuts About Betel
The quest for vitality is as long running as humankind. Even primitive man was seeking out ways to quicken his vital processes and functional activities. The common method of choice to achieve such powers and pleasures is by way of a stimulant – a psychoactive drug that induces temporary improvements in either mental or physical function. Who, at one time or another, hasn’t looked for a way to improve their alertness, wakefulness or general locomotion?
When you think of stimulants, the first things that probably come to mind are coffee, tea, cigarettes or alcohol. All of those stimulants are used widely throughout the world and are beloved by billions of buzz seekers. However, there are some other oral stimulants commonly used in different parts of the world that you may not be as familiar with. Take for example the betel nut (aka Areca nut), a seed from the Areca palm, which grows in tropical areas of Africa, Asia and the Pacific. The betel nut is enjoyed for its stimulating properties, which cause a sensation of mild heat in the body, along with a heightened alertness. In India, the betel nut is chewed with a betel leaf and may include a piece of clove or cardamom for flavor. “The days are long, the sun is hot and the work is at times grueling,” says Paranjay Gopal, a spice vendor in Madras. “I chew some betel and spice and I get an instant and highly welcome dose of natural motivation.” Tusker’s own Eddie Frank tried betel nut on a trip to Bhutan, and as open-minded as he is about foreign foods, did not appreciate the taste.
It should be noted that the betel nut produces a brilliant red color when chewed – think blood red – and does quite a number on your teeth and lips. Perhaps this is part of the appeal in a place like Papua New Guinea or Bhutan, where the betel nut can be found on every street corner and where the habit of chewing is as much a part of daily life as eating and sleeping. Jkay Tagoga, a village elder in Popoi, says of the betel nut, “It is a reducer of my stress, a suppressor of my hunger, and when my awareness starts to drift, I chew it and it brings it right back into focus.” Foreign visitors to Papua New Guinea often enjoy giving the betel nut a try as a way to immerse themselves in the culture. When invited into a local home, it is often offered as a welcoming gesture.
Of course, in a world full of fun and fascinating stimulants, the betel nut is only one of many nuts that can kick you into a high gear.
For a powerful caffeine boost without ever having to drink a cup of coffee, try the kola nut, native to the tropical rainforests of Africa. Plucked from the kola tree, it boasts a flavor that evolves from bitter to sweet when chewing and has an aroma that is sweet like a rose.
Kola nuts have ancient origins and have been a part of West African culture for thousands of years. They’ve been used as objects of religion, played an important role in weddings and other ceremonies, and used as medicine to restore vitality. “The kola nut descends from the time and culture of my great ancestors,” says Dwede Wahde, a tour guide in Ghana. “I wouldn’t be who I am without chewing it every single day.” In addition to caffeine, the kola nut is believed by some to possess powers of divinity and has even become something of a charm or collectors item among westerners who seek far and wide to acquire it. Outside of Africa, the kola nut has been cultivated in places like Brazil and Jamaica, where it has often been used to treat asthma and coughs. Eddie Frank, when he was expeditioning in West Africa, tried many times to acquire a taste for the kola nut, but never could.
For those who want to kick up the level of stimulation a few notches, there’s the ever-popular (and in some places illegal) khat.
Kicking the Khat
Khat is a flowering plant that is native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It is the alkaloid cathinone, found within the plant, which creates a feeling of excitement and euphoria.
The plant has been chewed in Yemen for centuries, predating even the use of coffee. Unlike betel nuts, which require a flavor enhancer to make them more palatable, khat leaves can be chewed plain and stuffed fully into the mouth. As they are munched, they turn the saliva a greenish color. For much of Yemen’s history, khat was used by farmers to reduce their fatigue and hunger. Today, it’s also used as a recreational drug and social lubricant by teenagers at parties. The plant is cultivated so extensively in Yemen that an estimated 40% of the country’s water supply goes toward irrigating it. It is estimated that 90% of men in Yemen are khat chewers. It’s a favorite pastime for sure, but some say it’s destroying the country. “Khat is highly addictive and costs five dollars a bag,” says Murad Yassar, a health official in Yemen. “How can that be good for a country where 40% of the population lives in poverty?”
Despite any health or financial warnings, the countrymen of Yemen are hardly going to quit cold turkey anytime soon. And it certainly doesn’t help that many of the country’s leaders are also landowners profiting handsomely from khat production.
The “American Habit”
Forget all these exotic “chewables” for a moment; there’s good old smokeless tobacco right here in the United States and it’s even more popular now than it was many centuries ago.
Chewing tobacco goes further back than the Common Era and a complex social, political and religious system has been built around the act. Native Americans were big on tobacco use, including the chewing of it, and found that it was beneficial for both medicinal and ceremonial purposes. In the 1800’s, chewing tobacco became known as the “American habit” and you could even find communal snuffboxes and cuspidors installed in the headquarters of Congress. However, by the end of the century, a public outcry against the “unsanitary” practice of chewing tobacco made it socially unacceptable and unlawful. Still there were those loyal practitioners who carried on the tradition. By the 1970’s, tobacco chewing had shifted from a man’s habit to a boy’s habit, with a ten-fold increase in the use of moist snuff by 18-24 year olds. Today, with 3% of the adult population and 8% of the high school student population partaking in the pleasures, the buzz is definitely on. Similar to khat in Yemen, the stakes are too high for the powers that be to allow smokeless tobacco use to decrease; tobacco manufacturers spent record amounts of money last year on the advertising and promotion of one of one of America’s favorite stimulants.
Despite the fact that all kinds of stimulants are heavily marketed to us on a daily basis, perhaps the root of our desire for vitality and other cognitive enhancements is the fact that our brains are hardwired to desire stimulation.
Hardwired for Stimulation
The marvels of modern medicine include recent advances in neuro-imaging, which has enabled researchers to look inside the brains of individuals who engage in addictive behaviors. In real-time, they watch as a patient gets hooked and can see the brain’s reward system in action. Mostly, it’s the dopamine, which is released when we chew tobacco, a betel nut, or any other stimulant, and the failure of our inhibitory control centers to stave off a thirst for more, which make chewing for stimulation such a compelling desire.
With the help of this technology, one thing has become certain: we now know that humankind’s quest for enhanced vitality through oral stimulants is a hardwired process that will keep us hooked through the end of time.