Khat (also referred to as “qat” or “cot”) is a flowering plant native to the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Chewing the leaves for their stimulating properties has been a traditional practice among people living in that area for centuries.
In the U.S., khat and its alkaloids, cathinone and cathine, are controlled substances under Schedule I and IV, respectively, by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Using the Khat Drug
The most commonly found form of khat is dried leaves, which can be chewed, smoked, mixed into food, or brewed as a tea. Although khat’s potential for inducing stimulating effects is highest when it’s fresh, the leaves are often ground into a powder for exportation into the United States.
This alteration of form may temper the typically intense high that fresh leaves can produce, so dried versions may not be as addictive as their unaltered counterparts. Still, this drug does have some potential for abuse and addiction, and chronic use may result in short- and long-term side effects.
Of note, the principal populations globally who abuse khat are the Yemeni, Somali, and Ethiopian populations. However, the drug has recently become more popular among Americans in the U.S. because it was legal for some time. It is also easy to obtain online, despite its current illegality. Khat remains available because it’s not a widely-abused drug and synthesized versions, known as “bath salts,” are considered to be much more dangerous.
Khat Drug Effects
Desired Effects of Khat
- Increased energy
- Mental acuity
- Physical stimulation
- Mild euphoria
- Altered sensory perception
- Increased confidence
- Reduced inhibitions
- Increased talkativeness
Side Effects of Khat
- Manic behaviors
- Suicidal thoughts
- Increased heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Extreme weight loss
- Dental problems
- Pulmonary issues
Because khat is a stimulant, it can damage the heart and vascular system. Small amounts of khat might induce feelings similar to drinking an excessive amount of coffee, as well as open up blood vessels in the brain to allow more oxygen to pass through. This effect then causes the heart to pump more rapidly. Higher doses of khat, however, can result in dramatically accelerated and irregular heart rate, increased blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke.
Khat can adversely affect the stomach and intestines, causing abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, and prolonged loss of appetite that results in significant weight loss. A person struggling with khat abuse can also experience decreased urinary output.
One of the most common methods of consuming khat is to chew the leaves. This form of use can cause oral and dental problems, 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 associated with an increased risk of developing lung conditions, such as pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, emphysema, and lung cancer.
The long-term, excessive use of khat can lead to what is known as khat-induced psychosis. Although this mental health condition is rare, one study of a random sampling of nearly 4,900 households in Somalia found that mental illness and khat use co-occurred in 8.4% of males age 12 and older. Whether the mental condition or the khat abuse came first was unclear, the two appeared to be closely correlated.
Long-term khat abuse has also been linked to liver damage and failure, also known as khat-induced hepatitis. Some reports have shown that khat-induced liver damage can also lead to cirrhosis—and therefore, may be life-threatening.
Chewing khat in East Africa has been found to lead an increased risk of oral cancer. Ingesting the drug by other means may contribute to the development of liver cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, and other cancers. Unfortunately, the link between using khat and a higher risk of cancer is not well-understood.
What Substances Can Interact With Khat?
Khat is relatively new to the U.S., and its interactions with medication or recreational drugs have not been well-researched. However, because of khat’s ability to affect the vascular system, people who take medicines for heart disease or blood clotting issues should avoid the use of khat.
Also, those on medication for lung or liver problems should use the utmost caution. Khat use can make these co-existing health conditions worse and is likely to reduce the effectiveness of prescription drugs used to treat these conditions. People who use other stimulants, including amphetamines, cocaine, or meth, can experience amplified side effects if they are also using khat.
It is possible to experience an overdose on khat, although the exact cause is not well understood among experts at this time. Typically, overdose symptoms may occur in those who have struggled for a prolonged period with khat addiction because they develop a tolerance to the drug. Over time, this condition often compels them to use it in higher doses and more frequently.
Symptoms of khat toxicity include the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Breathing difficulties
- High blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
As noted, the chronic abuse of khat can also contribute to liver damage and heart problems, especially myocardial infarctions. People who are predisposed to psychiatric conditions such as psychosis or schizophrenia are more likely to induce or exaggerate these mental health problems if they also use khat.
As the body breaks down khat and eliminates it from the system, the stimulating effects will begin to wear off. This state is also known as the comedown period, and this effect could lead to a cycle of binging to avoid negative feelings associated with withdrawal.
Symptoms of khat comedown include:
These symptoms are comparable to those associated with a comedown from other stimulants, such as cocaine or meth. However, khat users report that they do not encounter comedown effects as intense as those of these other drugs. Moreover, khat might be less likely to compel a binging pattern of use than, say, cocaine or amphetamines.
A Word on Bath Salts
Synthetic cathinones are stimulants that are chemically related to cathinone, which is the key psychoactive ingredient in the khat plant. Human-made versions of this substance, however, can be much more potent than the plant itself and also very dangerous.
Synthetic cathinone products are often labeled as “bath salts” and should not be confused with benign household products like Epsom salt. Moreover, synthetic cathinones usually take the form of a white or brown crystalline powder and are sold in small foil or plastic packages marked as “not for human consumption.”
Getting Treatment for Drug Abuse and Addiction
For people who have become dependent on khat, it is vital to overcome this addiction before permanent physical complications or psychological trauma occurs. A comprehensive rehab program can offer the therapeutic support and treatment needed to address problems related to substance abuse and addiction.
Although the abuse of khat is not common in the U.S., it does occur. Those who use khat may be more likely to abuse other substances, including other stimulants or alcohol.
Harmony Recovery Center offers multi-faceted, integrated programs designed to address substance abuse and co-occurring mental conditions. We customize our programs to each individual’s needs and goals, which ensure that our clients receive the most effective treatment possible.
Are you struggling with drug abuse? Is someone you love addicted to khat or other substances? If so, contact us today and discover how we help people break free from addiction for life!