Effects of Betel nut chewing on the
central and autonomic nervous systems

Chu NS.
Department of Neurology,
Chang Gung Medical College
and Memorial Hospital,
Taipei, Taiwan, ROC.
J Biomed Sci 2001 May-Jun;8(3):229-36


Betel chewing has been claimed to produce a sense of well-being, euphoria, heightened alertness, sweating, salivation, a hot sensation in the body and increased capacity to work. Betel chewing also leads to habituation, addiction and withdrawal. However, the mechanisms underlying these effects remain poorly understood. Arecoline, the major alkaloid of Areca nut, has been extensively studied, and several effects of betel chewing are thought to be related to the actions of this parasympathomimetic constituent. However, betel chewing may produce complex reactions and interactions. In the presence of lime, arecoline and guvacoline in Areca nut are hydrolyzed into arecaidine and guvacine, respectively, which are strong inhibitors of GABA uptake. Piper betle flower or leaf contains aromatic phenolic compounds which have been found to stimulate the release of catecholamines in vitro. Thus, betel chewing may affect parasympathetic, GABAnergic and sympathetic functions. Betel chewing produces an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, sweating and body temperature. In addition, EEG shows widespread cortical desynchronization indicating a state of arousal. In autonomic function tests, both the sympathetic skin response and RR interval variation are affected. Betel chewing also increases plasma concentrations of norepinephrine and epinephrine. These results suggest that betel chewing mainly affects the central and autonomic nervous systems. Future studies should investigate both the acute and chronic effects of betel chewing. Such studies may further elucidate the psychoactive mechanisms responsible for the undiminished popularity of betel chewing since antiquity.
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