Active Ingredients

The major active ingredient of betel nut is arecoline, present in a concentration estimated to be 0.25 percent. The mixture also contains small amounts of pilocarpine and muscarine. These three ingredients are all natural plant products that act in the body in a manner similar to the normal brain NEUROTRANSMITTER acetylcholine. In the presence of calcium hydroxide, arecoline is also converted to another psychoactive substance, aredaidine.

Chewing betel nut produces immediate effects that in some ways resemble those of NICOTINE, but which are likely to continue for hours. These include euphoria and feelings of general arousal and activation, perceived by the user as a decrease in tiredness and a blunting of feelings of irritability.

Other prominent effects are also related to the acetylcholine-like actions. These include sweating, increased production of saliva, and an increase in breathing rate and lacrimation (tearing of the eyes). Effects on the digestive tract include a decrease in appetite and, especially if the drug is taken on an empty stomach, diarrhea. All these effects can be blocked by atropine, a type of anti-acetylcholine drug.

Some of the active ingredients in betel nut are used in modern pharmacological treatment in the Western world. Betel-nut preparations have been used in Western society as a purgative and in veterinary medicine as an agent for treating worm infestation in animals. Probably the most interesting use appears around 1842, when betel nut was included in toothpastes in England. It was touted as an important way to prevent decay, a claim that may or may not be accurate, although much larger doses than those found in toothpastes would be required to really be clinically effective. It was also said that this ingredient would help strengthen the tooth enamel and remove tartar, claims of questionable value. In view of the fact that betel, as it is commonly used, stains the teeth dark red to black, is thought to cause tooth decay, and can cause serious lesions of the mouth and throat, it is curious that it should have appeared in Western society in preparations for dental care.

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