Khat (also spelled as “qat” or “cot”) is a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Chewing the leaves for their stimulating effects has been a traditional practice among individuals living in these areas for centuries.
In the United States, khat and its alkaloids, cathinone and cathine, are classified by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) as Schedule I and Schedule IV substances, respectively.
Khat is most commonly found as dried leaves, which can be chewed, combined with food, smoked, or brewed as a tea. Although khat’s potential for producing stimulating effects is highest when fresh, the leaves are often crushed into a powder for exportation into the U.S.
This altered form may mitigate the typically intense high that fresh leaves can induce, so dried forms may not be quite as addictive as their unaltered counterparts. Still, any version of khat is believed to have some potential for abuse and addiction, and long-term use may lead to adverse short- and long-term effects.
Of note, the main populations who use khat are Yemeni, Somali, and Ethiopian. However, the drug has recently become more prevalent among Americans in the United States because it was legal for some time. It is also relatively easy to purchase online, despite its current illegal status. Synthesized versions, oft-referred to as “bath salts,” are also widely available, although they are considered much more dangerous.
Desired Effects of Khat
- Increased energy
- Increased mental acuity
- Physical stimulation
- Mild euphoria
- Increased talkativeness
- Altered sensory perception
- Increased confidence
- Lowered inhibitions
Side Effects of Khat
- Manic behavior
- Suicidal ideations
- Elevated heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Extreme weight loss
- Dental issues
- Pulmonary problems
Because khat is a potent stimulant, it can cause damage to the heart and vascular system. Small amounts of khat might produce feelings similar to drinking an excessive amount of coffee and open up brain blood vessels to permit more oxygen to pass through. This effect then results in the heart pumping faster. Excessive doses of khat can lead to extraordinarily accelerated and irregular heart rate, increased blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
Khat can irritate the stomach and intestines, causing pain, nausea and vomiting, and an extended loss of appetite, possibly resulting in significant weight loss. A person engaging in khat abuse can also experience reduced urinary output.
One of the most popular means of ingesting khat is to chew leaves. This form of use can cause oral and dental issues, such as brown staining or discoloration of the teeth and gums. More severely, chewing khat may also result in cavities, gum disease, cracks in the teeth related to structural damage, and oral cancer.
Smoking khat has been linked to an increased risk of developing lung problems such as pneumonia, emphysema, pulmonary embolism, and lung cancer.
Chronic, excessive use of khat can lead to what is known as khat-induced psychosis. Although this mental health disorder is uncommon, one study of a random sample of nearly 4,900 households in Somalia revealed that mental illness and khat use co-existed in 8.4% of males age 12 and older. Although it was unclear whether which condition came first, the two did indeed appear closely correlated.
Chronic khat abuse has also been associated with liver damage and failure, also known as khat-induced hepatitis. Some reports have found that khat-induced liver damage can also cause cirrhosis and, therefore, may be life-threatening.
Chewing khat in East Africa has been shown to result in an increased risk of oral cancer. Ingesting the substance by using other methods may contribute to various forms of cancer, including those related to the lungs (by smoking) and the stomach. Unfortunately, however, the link between khat use and a higher risk of certain cancers is not well-understood.
Substances That Interact With Khat
Khat use is relatively new to the United States, and its interactions with medications or recreational drugs have not been the subject of much research. However, because of khat’s ability to interfere with the vascular system, individuals who take medication for heart disease or blood clotting problems should wholly avoid the khat use.
Also, those on prescription medications for lung or liver conditions should not use khat. It can make these co-occurring health disorders worse and is likely to reduce the effectiveness of drugs used to treat these conditions. People who use or abuse other stimulants, including amphetamines or cocaine, can experience intensified side effects if they are also abusing khat.
It is possible to overdose on khat, although the exact cause is not well understood among researchers at this time. Typically, overdose symptoms tend to occur in those who have struggled with khat abuse for an extended period because they develop tolerance. When tolerance occurs, this tends to encourage individuals to use more of the substance more often to achieve the sought-after effects.
Symptoms of khat toxicity include the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Breathing difficulties
- High blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
As noted, khat’s chronic abuse can also contribute to liver damage and heart problems, especially myocardial infarctions. People susceptible to certain psychiatric conditions, such as psychosis or schizophrenia, are more likely to provoke or exacerbate these mental health conditions if they also use khat.
As the body metabolizes khat and expels it from the system, its stimulating actions begin to subside. This state is also referred to as the comedown period, and this could lead to a cycle of binging to avoid adverse physical and emotional effects associated with withdrawal. During this time, symptoms may include lethargy, depression, tremors, and sleep disturbances such as nightmares.
These symptoms are quite similar to those associated with a comedown related to other stimulant drugs, such as cocaine or amphetamines. However, many khat users report that they do not experience comedown effects as severe as those of these other substances. Moreover, khat might be less likely to drive a person to engage in a binge pattern of use than, say, meth.
What Are Bath Salts?
Synthetic cathinones are stimulants that are structurally related to cathinone, the key psychoactive ingredient in the khat plant. However, human-made versions of this substance can be more potent than the plant itself and also much more dangerous.
Synthetic cathinone products are frequently marketed as “bath salts” and should not be confused with innocuous household products such as Epsom salt. Synthetic cathinones are usually found in the form of a white or brown crystalline powder and are sold in small plastic or foil packages marked as “not for human consumption.”
Getting Treatment for Drug Abuse and Addiction
It is vital for people who have become dependent on khat to overcome this condition before irreversible physical or psycho-emotional complications occur. A comprehensive addiction treatment program can offer the therapeutic support needed to address substance abuse and all aspects of a person’s health and well-being.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery centers offer multifaceted, intensive programs designed to address substance use disorders and co-existing mental health conditions. We personalize our programs to each individual’s needs and goals and offer a variety of evidence-based methodologies, including psychotherapy, counseling, group support, and aftercare planning.