People have chewed or smoked plants to achieve “highs” almost since time began. Sure, some people use psychoactive substances recreationally to escape the pressures of their lives. But they are also sometimes an important part of religious ceremonies, allowing shamans to experience the spirit world. And sometimes, psychoactive substances, such as the betel leaf and areca nut, are used in cultural ceremonies. For example, a groom might give betel and areca to his bride’s family in a traditional Vietnamese wedding.

 

The areca nut is the fourth most commonly used psychoactive substance in the world after tobacco, alcohol and caffeine. People chew it alone or in combination with a variety of spices, such as cardamom or saffron, and oftentimes the whole mixture is wrapped in a betel leaf in a concoction known as “betel quid,” or BQ. BQ is popular among people in China, India and other Asian countries, and people of Asian heritage living in other countries.

 

Commercial forms of BQ have popped up in recent years, especially in India. A version with tobacco is called gutkha, and the version lacking tobacco is called pan masala.

 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) stated in 1985 that chewing BQ with tobacco is carcinogenic. More recently, they went even further and stated that even chewing it without tobacco or chewing the areca nut by itself also can cause cancer.

 

Scientists have shown that the body can convert substances in the areca nut to those that can cause cancer. But researchers in Taiwan wanted to know if these areca nut substances could cause cancer directly, without the body intervening and making them carcinogenic.

 

In a report in ACS’ journal Chemical Research in Toxicology, Mu-Rong Chao and Chiung-Wen Hu discovered that compounds in the areca nut can “alkylate” the genetic material DNA, causing changes that increase the risk of cancer. These compounds are present in the ripe and unripe nuts, as well as in gutkha and pan masala. And they’re present in amounts high enough to cause cancer.

 

“Our study showed that these alkylating agents are present at levels sufficient to cause DNA damage and could potentially have adverse implications to human health, particularly in the case of the development of oral cancer for BQ chewers," say Chao and Hu.

 

“Direct-Acting DNA Alkylating Agents Present in Aqueous Extracts of Areca Nut and Its Products,” Chemical Research in Toxicology

 

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Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock


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