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1. Betel nut 2. Botanical name3. Nicknames4. Use of the betel nut5. Betel nut and health6. Effects of betel nut7. Traditional use of betel nut as a stimulant8. Betelnut and marriage

Betel nut

The betel nut, also called areca nut, comes from the betel palm, a palm tree that can grow up to 15 meters high. The betel palm originates from Southeast Asia, specifically Indonesia. Here it is frequently cultivated. The seeds germinate in a few weeks and are mainly grown in greenhouses in the west. The betel palm has pinnate leaves that can grow up to two meters long. She gets small, yellowish-white flowers and later she gets yellow to orange fruits. It is considered one of the most beautiful palm trees and also kept as an ornamental plant. 

The seed, or betel nuts, have a long history of human use. Mainly because of its stimulating effects and its long traditional use, the betel nut is a favourite. As with the coconut, we are actually talking about a stone fruit and not a nut. The betel nut is red in color and bitter in taste. It is eaten raw and fresh, as well as when hard and dried. The fruits are harvested just before they are fully ripe, because the seed then contains its highest value of active substances.

Botanical name

Areca catechu

Nicknames

Areca nut, indian nut, paan, pinang

Use of the betel nut

In Southeast Asia, East Asia and India, chewing this betel nut has been done for centuries. There are different ways in which it is used, depending on customs. Usually the nut is chewed together with lime. This lime comes from shells, snail shells or coral, depending on what is available. Adding lime converts the content of areciline into the active substance arecaidine. This enhances the effects of the betel nut. 

One way to use betel nut is to chop it into small pieces, then wrap it in a piece of betel leaf from the betel pepper (Piper betle, a climbing plant). The heart-shaped leaves of this plant are best picked when still young. This is then mixed with chewing tobacco, lime and cloves, resulting in a chewy mixture. Other ingredients are also often added to improve the taste, such as sal ammonia, mint, liquorice, honey, fruit and spice extracts. By chewing for a long time, a red paste is created that colors the saliva red. With chronic use, the teeth are also discolored red. After the good has lost its taste, it is spit out. In the countries of origin it is expressly forbidden to chew betel nut in many public places, because it spits for dirty stains on takes care of the ground.

Betel nut and health

In India this chewy bite of betelnut, wrapped in the leaf of the betel pepper, is also called 'paan'. From the Hindi culture there is a long history of its use. As one can read in the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana: 'after brushing the teeth, looking in the mirror and eating a tambula to clean the mouth, you can start your working day'. Tambula is the name from Sanskrit for the betelnut mixture. Tamra' means copper, which refers to the red color obtained by chewing the betel nut. According to Sushrata, a representative of traditional Indian medicine, tambula keeps the mouth clean, gives the voice more strength and helps promote bowel movement. In several parts of India, China and Sri Lanka the betel nut is even used as an ingredient in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. For example, it is used as a powder to get rid of tapeworms. It is also said to help treat bad breath. Powdered Betelnut is sometimes used as an additive in certain toothpastes. Betelnut as a medicine also exists in the form of the extracted ingredients, compounded into tablets. However, long-term use of betelnut is associated with various health risks, including carcinogenic and disruptive to the oral flora. As with tobacco, its use is advised against as a preventive measure. There is also an increased risk of miscarriage when betel nut is chewed during pregnancy. Furthermore, chewing combined with alcohol or smoking cigarettes increases the risk of the above complications. However, the (chronic) use is deeply rooted in the cultures of origin and betelnut chewing is considered a tradition.

Effects of betel nut

The main reason for chewing the betel nut is because of its stimulating, slightly euphoric effects. In general, one gets an increased feeling of alertness, a warm feeling all over the body.

The effect can also be highly dependent, determined by the freshness of the betel palm and the tolerance of the user. The component that provides the greatest effect is the substance arecoline. Its effects are a stimulating effect on the central nervous system and an acceleration of breathing. This makes one feel more alert and energetic. As a result, a slightly euphoric feeling can occur. 

The betel nut contains various substances, including the tannins arecatannin and gallic acid, oily eraser, a little terpineol, lignin, various saline solutions, and three important alkaloids - arecolin, arecaidin, and guvacin - all have a constricting effect on the blood vessels. The betel leaf, usually chewed together with the betel nut, contains the substance eugenol, which also has a constricting effect on the blood vessels. Finally, nicotine is often combined with betel nut, so the effect of nicotine can also play a role. When travelers and tourists or inexperienced users try betel nut for the first time, they may be surprised at the possible effects. As with cigarette smoking, an inexperienced user may experience nausea and a strong feeling of being under the influence for the first time. On the internet there are plenty of experience stories from people who try 'betel' for the first time in the traditional way, the combination of betel nut, betel leaf and slaked lime.

Traditional use of betel nut as a stimulant

In several Asian countries, the chewing of betel nut has a very long history. In countries such as India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia. Because of archaeological findings in Thailand and Indonesia, among others, it is suggested that the combination of betel nut and betel leaf has been used by humans for more than 4000 years.

Historical texts in Sanskrit mention the chewing of betel nut among eight other 'generators of pleasure', namely incense, women, clothing, music, the bed and food. Old images often depict scenes in which a man and a woman sensually feed each other a bite of betel nut. Chewing betelnut is strongly associated with pleasure and eroticism. When lovers are portrayed, there are often details present that indicate the use of betel nut, for example the special boxes in which the medicine is kept. These boxes are perforated, allowing the leaves to be kept fresh thanks to fresh air.  In the Vatsyayana it is mentioned that the sacrifice of betel nut is a way to honor the gods. Even today, within certain traditions, betel nut is used in religious contexts. Eating a 'tambula' is only reserved for married men and women. Students and widows should not take the medicine. Also ascetics are forbidden to use betelnut, because it is seen as a stimulant. 

Betelnut and marriage

As mentioned earlier, the chewing of betel nut and betel leaf in different traditions is central to the love relationship. It is therefore not surprising that it has a special place within the ceremony of marriage. In most provinces of India a 'tambula' is chewed in honor of the event. For the guests, the betel nuts are packed in beautiful bags that can then be distributed and processed into a snack. It is also customary for the groom to hold a betel bite in her mouth, from which the groom then bites off half of it. Shoulders often give a special box made for the storage of betel snacks. These boxes nowadays belong to real artifacts of India. Once they were an important part of the family and had a special place within the household. These boxes were made in different shapes and provided with special ornaments. Also, as mentioned before, they usually have holes in the walls that give them a special character and allow fresh air to enter. Sometimes the box is made in a recognizable shape, for example a pumpkin, a bird or a flower. The inside is often made up of different compartments, where there is a place for the betel leaves and the nutcracker (which breaks open the areca nuts), compartments for the different herbs and spices. The oldest boxes are made of materials such as terracotta (which was sprinkled with water to keep the leaves fresh) and vetiver, a special type of grass, popularly known as khas.

Nowadays the use of 'paan' is still an important part of the culture. Preparing it yourself, which takes time, is now also being replaced by special stores where you can buy prepared betelnut snacks. In India they can be found on almost every street corner.

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