What is Areca?

Areca, a slender perennial palm, trunk, reaching a height of about 25-30 m, belonging to the family Arecaceae is a genus consisting single-stemmed palms of nearly 50 species among which the best-known member is Areca catechu which also goes by the names Betel Palm, Areca nut, areca quid, Areca Palm, Pinang Palm, Supari, Puga.

It is cultivated in coastal regions of South India, Malaysia, Srilanka, South China and East Indies and in tropical to subtropical climates of East Africa, South Asia and the Pacific Islands. The name Areca comes from a local Malay name from Malabar Coast of India and Catechu also from a local name for this palm, caccu. Areca catechu has served many purposes to mankind over the years. The fruit has been used for medicine and food while tree/Palm for shelter and handicraft goods.

Commercially important parts are seed crop, the areca nut (Betel nut where the term betel refers to the Piper betel leaf which accompanies the areca nut when chewed). The areca nuts are known for their bitter and tangy taste. They are generally used in combination of 3 other ingredients- betel leaves (leafs of Piper betel of Piperaceae family), tobacco and calcium hydroxide (lime). These are very hard, bluntly rounded, somewhat conical seeds 1.5-3 cm in length, 2-3 cm in width at base of generally brownish colour with paler depressed and fawn-colored lines.

Some other species which aren’t used normally are Areca andersonii, Areca chaiana, Areca triandra etc.

Why is Areca Unique?

The Areca nut is rather a drupe than a true nut. The main active constituents extracted from the seeds/nuts are the alkaloids which are reduced pyridine derivatives i.e Arecoline (0.1-0.5%), Arecaine, Arecaidine, isoguvacine, norarecaidine, norarecoline, guvacoline and Guvacine. Out of these, Arecoline is medicinally the most important.

It also contains Polyphenols mostly flavonoids and condensed tannins (15%) such as arecatannin (procyanidins), gallic acid, catechin and epicatechin. 14% of fatty acids mostly glycerides like phthalic acid, lauric acid, myristic acid, oleic acid, stearic acid and palmitic acid are also present.

Other constituents present are lignin, polysaccharides, fibre, protein, a fixed oil gum, volatile oil, terpeniol, saline substances and eugenol.

Health Benefits of Areca

Mild Stimulant and as masticatory drug : Areca nut is mostly popular for chewing throughout southern Asian countries India, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippine and Bangladesh. When chewed after being wrapped with a betel leaf, it acts as a mild stimulant providing a warming sensation in the body, heightened alertness which varies from person to person. It has also been reported to be a good source of flouride when chewed. The effect is mainly due to the alkaloid arecoline which on normal doses produce stimulant and euphoric effects whereas by consuming large doses can lead to sedation. Arecoline has anti-muscarinic effects on smooth muscle and it also binds with GABA receptors in the brain, thereby inhibiting GABA, contributing to its psychoactive effects.

areca

Preparation of areca nut slices with or without betel leaf used for chewing purposes is referred to as “Paan” in India and Pakistan. It’s said to sweeten the breath, produces exhilarant effect on the system and strenghtens the gums.

Vasoconstrictor : It’s alcoholic and alkaline extracts have proved to cause aqueous vasoconstriction of capillaries to varying degrees which are due to the presence of the alkaloids such as arecoline, arecaidine and guvacine.

Used as the Ingredients of Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese medical preparations : Consuming few tsps powdered areca nut, tablets containing the alkaloidal extracts, or when drunk as decoction can prove to be helpful in removal of tapeworms (used as Taenifuge) and other intestinal parasites and as an anthelmentic drug.

Preparation which used as taenifuge and anthelmentic : Take 25 grams of nut and seed powder, boil with 2 cups of water. Allow to cool the boiling water and filter. Drink this water before breakfast.

Sialagogue/Saliva stimulant : It stimulates the salivary glands and increases the secretion of saliva when used in a salt form, Arecoline hydrobromide (a commercial salt) which is stronger than Pilocarpine.

Activation of Adrenaline : Studies have shown that aqueous extract of Areca catechu potentiated the activity of adrenaline.

Anti-microbial activities : Aqueous extract of nut showed inhibition of growth of Staphylococcus aureus (bacteria), Esterechia coli (bacteria), Candida albican (fungi).

Anti-oxidant activity : Methanolic extract of Areca catechu provides scavenging activity and anti-aging activity against superoxide anion and radicals. Therefore it is traditionally used in Chinese medicinal preparations for its anti-oxidant effects.

Reduction of sperm motility : Few studies have reported that sperm motility significantly decreases after regular consumption of Areca nuts. This effect is attributed to arecoline alkaloid which induces cyclo-oxygenase 2 expression of human sperm cells in a dose dependent manner in-vitro.

Management of psychiatric disorders : Studies have also revealed improvements in both positive and negative symptoms of Schizophrenia and Depression, though a firm conclusion is yet to be done. However side effects such as tremors and stiffness have been reported. It can also be helpful to treat patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease though response is not equally effective in all persons.

It Promotes wound healing : Polyphenols present in the Areca seeds facilitate wound healing. How to use? The meat of young Areca nut is finely grounded, and then is placed on the injured body part.

Dental caries and Gingivitis : Powdered form of areca nut is used as a constituent in some tooth paste and tooth powders for the prevention of dental cavities. It also incorporated in mouth washes and gargles which are used for gingivitis (gum disease).Its effects are due to the alkaloids present in the seed.

Usage of Areca

Areca nut can be eaten raw or may be prepared by processing or cooking. Mastication can be done of the nut alone or nut combined with other ingredients (known as quid) including catechu gum, cardamom, lime, tobacco, nutmeg, cinnamon etc. or as mentioned previously or areca preparations (such as paan, pan masala, supari) can be consumed.

In case of children (younger than 18 years) is not recommended due to increased risks of toxicity along with worsening symptoms of asthma, effects on heart and cancer.

When not to Use Areca

  • Chewing of areca preparations to be avoided during pregnancy and breast-feeding as it may significantly increase adverse outcomes for the baby.
  • If you are suffering from psychotic disorders, avoid chewing areca nut as it may further cause detorioration of psychosis.
  • It may alter blood sugar level; therefore caution is advice when using herbs/supplements that may also alter blood arecasugar levels. Monitoring of sugar levels and dosage adjustment is required.
  • Use of areca nut is not recommended if you are suffering from asthma as it may worsen the effects of asthama.
  • Effects of anti-cholinergic agents may decrease when used in combination with Areca nut and may cause toxicities when used with cholinergic agents.

Potential Adverse Effects:

  • Adverse effects that might be observed after consumption of areca are hypotension, chest discomfort, Nausea, Palpitation, Vomiting, Abdominal Colic, Numbness and coma.
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has regarded chewing of betel and areca nut to be a possible human carcinogen. The habit of chewing areca may cause oral submucosal fibrosis (OSF), pre-cancerous oral leukoplakia (mouth wounds) and mouth cancers.
  • Regular use of areca may prove to be addictive.
  • Some Nitroso compounds isolated from the aqueous extracts such as N-nitrosoguvacoline, N-nitrosoguvacine, 3-(N-nitrosomethylamino)propionitrile etc have been found cytotoxic and genotoxic to human buccal epithelial cells.

Conclusion

Approximately 600 million people worldwide chew areca nut making it the fourth most widely used drug after nicotine, ethanol and caffeine. Areca nut is used for consumption worldwide and maintains both cultural and economic importance. Culturally it’s a symbol of beliefs and values in countries that have a long tradition of use.

The nut has been used for rituals and spiritual offering in Southern Asian countries. The above mentioned health benefits are well accepted due to the wealth of the scientific literature supporting these effects.