An Addictive Nut Could Hold the Key to Quitting Smoking

What would you say if we told you that an addictive, cancer-causing substance could help you safely stop using another addictive, cancer-causing substance? Sure, it sounds far-fetched. But it may be true. Chemicals found in the areca nut, which millions of people in Southeast Asia chew for its stimulant properties, could one day help people quit using tobacco.

According to ongoing research presented on Wednesday at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, chemists have identified alkaloids in the seed of the Areca catechu palm that may help smokers quit their unhealthy habit without the negative side effects caused by some of the commonly available smoking cessation drugs.

Nicole Horenstein, a chemist at the University of Florida, estimates that 600 million people use the areca nut regularly. The nut, known for its mild stimulant properties, is often wrapped with leaves from the betel vine to form what’s known as a “quid.” Areca chewers often add spices, calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), and sometimes tobacco to the quid. Users chew it and hold it in their mouths, in much the same way that people in the United States use smokeless tobacco products such as snuff or chewing tobacco.

The key to this possible new tool in the public health battle against nicotine addiction is the alkaloids found in areca nuts. Horenstein’s team has found that some of the nut’s alkaloids could be better at targeting the desired brain receptors to treat nicotine addiction than other smoking cessation drugs such as the popular drug Chantix (varenicline). While varenicline binds to nicotine receptors in a person’s brain to help them not crave a cigarette, it also binds to some unintended receptors, causing side effects like sleep walking and suicidal thoughts.

The researchers conducted this study on frog cells that contain the same receptors areca nut affects the human brain and body cells, and they found that the molecules they’re developing from areca alkaloids can target these receptors more precisely, accomplishing the same goal as Chantix without the negative side effects.