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Khat Treatment and Withdrawal

Khat is a stimulant derived from a plant with the same name. It is used in areas around the world as an alternative to other recreational stimulants, and it has seen increased use due to its potency and low cost. Various agencies around the world monitor the use and effects of recreational and medical drugs, and many of them have identified the drug as an illegal substance due to its negative side effects.

Many government agencies are now trying to educate the public regarding the potential side effects of short- and long-term exposure to khat. The practice of chewing khat is deeply embedded in African and Arabian cultures. According to Mayo Clinic, as much as 90 percent of the adult male population in Yemen uses khat. There is concern for communities where use has been normalized due to availability and prevalence, as it has become apparent that there are serious long-term side effects associated with khat use, ranging from inability to sleep to heart conditions related to overuse of stimulants.

Uses of Khat

Khat has a long history of use in social and religious practices. In its natural form, it is chewed, which releases the stimulus trapped in the plant. In the areas where the plant grows naturally, including around the Horn of Africa and along the Arabian Peninsula, the drug has widely been used in social settings in a way that is similar to how alcohol and other easily available recreational drugs are used.

Khat can be used in any manner of ingestion where intense direct heat is not applied to the plant. According to the Journal of Ethnopharmacologythe tips of the stems are chewed for their stimulating effect. Besides the traditional method of chewing khat, a lesser-used method involves slowly drying the leaves to be used in food or drink applications. It is possible to extract the drug from the plants, as long as a flame or intense heat is not applied directly to the plant, which would destroy the drug before it is extracted. This limits how people are able to use the drug to primarily chewing it or eating the leaves.

How Does Khat Cause Addiction?

Khat is known for its stimulant effects, which are similar to the effects of amphetamine. Research on the effects of the drug has shown that long-term exposure to the stimulant in khat produces an effect on the brain similar to the overuse of other stimulants like caffeine.

These effects can help to form a psychological addiction to the drug, as the production of natural stimulants within the brain slowly decreases over time due to exposure to khat. Unlike caffeine, khat has a significantly high potential for negative side effects.

Effects on the Mind

Other effects of using khat include:

  • Euphoria
  • Improved concentration
  • Increased confidence
  • Surges in cognitive ability
  • Mental stimulation

Khat’s main use is as a stimulant that acts directly on the brain. When ingested, it acts as a stimulant in the body and eventually goes to the brain through blood transfer. This is generally a quick process with visible results in a short period of time. People experience a sense of pleasure due to increased alertness and perceived energy levels.

Many people use khat as they would other stimulants to provide a boost in energy levels and alertness while working. Khat’s effect on the mind results in an increase in mental activity, usually described as improved alertness and boosted cognitive abilities.

Chronic use of khat can cause various negative mental health effects. Continuous mental arousal can cause increased stress on the brain’s mental capacities. This can lead to serious complications, including hallucinations, as well as reduced cognitive abilities due to mental exhaustion.

Despite the negative effects of using khat, many continue to use the drug to boost their cognitive and physical abilities for specific tasks. Those who live an active lifestyle use the drug to provide increased energy and focus while completing their daily activities. While short-term exposure to the drug may lead to lifestyle improvements, such as increased productivity and enhancements in physical and mental experiences, it is crucial to monitor and limit use of any stimulant to prevent serious long-term effects.

Effects on the Body

Khat’s effect on the body presents itself as an increase in energy. People often state they develop a sense of increased energy and willingness to participate in more intense activities than they otherwise would have. This is similar to the effects of other stimulants, as the drug provides a noticeable boost in physical ability.

These enhancements, however, may also lead to continued and unregulated use of the drug, despite the potential for long-term side effects. With chronic use, injury to the liver may occur, according to LiverTox.

Additional physical effects of using khat include:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased heart rate
  • Physical arousal
  • Cancer

Long-term khat use increases physical stress on the body, especially on the heart. According to Circulationa publication of the American Heart Association, khat users may be more likely to be diagnosed with acute coronary syndrome, even without other cardiovascular risk factors. This is true even for those who were in otherwise good physical condition prior to their chronic use of khat.

Khat may also contribute to severe liver disease. A study published in the Journal of Medical Cases found that quitting khat has been associated with the recovery or stabilization of liver disease in men with unexplained liver disease. This study suggests that khat may have been the cause of, or at least contributing to, the condition.

In less serious cases, the increase in blood pressure associated with khat use combined with the increase in heart rate could lead to additional wear on the heart, reducing the person’s ability to withstand physical activity. The stimulating effect that khat has on other structures of the body, including the body’s muscle structure, can lead to unnecessary wear and the eventual degradation of muscles, leaving the individual in a weakened state for long periods of time while trying to recover. According to Anthropology Todaysome of the potential negative effects of khat chewing are inconclusive, but they may be similar to the effects of amphetamines and methamphetamines.

Knowing When Someone Needs Help

Knowing when some form of medical treatment or intervention is needed can be difficult. When a person is using khat, they may engage in impulsive and risky behaviors. According to Mayo Clinic, psychoneurological disturbances are common with long-term use of the drug, perhaps due to the increase in perceived energy and stamina.

Students, especially those in high school or college, may use khat for better academic performance, to have more energy, or to study during late-night cramming sessions. According to the Journal of Family Community Medicinestudents chewing khat may be more likely to:

  • Experience decreased academic performance
  • Use the drug recreationally on weekends
  • Smoke tobacco cigarettes
  • Maintain a lower GPA
  • Be absent from school
  • Face academic probation

Getting Help

There is some debate on whether khat is physically addiction, but there is little question that it can be psychologically addictive. As a result, comprehensive addiction treatment is recommended in cases of chronic khat abuse and addiction. As with any addiction, it’s important to find a treatment program that is well equipped to offer customized care to each client. There is no one-size-fits-all method to addiction treatment, so care must be tailored to the specific needs of each person in treatment.

Treatment may begin with medical detox to help clients work through the psychological withdrawal symptoms associated with stopping use of khat. Withdrawal symptoms from khat may be similar to withdrawal symptoms from other stimulants and include lethargy, irritability, and insomnia. In some instances, medications may be prescribed to treat specific withdrawal symptoms, such as antidepressants to stabilize mood or sleep aids to combat insomnia.

After detox, clients must engage in the bulk of addiction treatment: therapy. This therapy generally takes place on both an individual and group basis, addressing the core reasons that led to substance abuse and subsequent addiction. As part of care, treatment professionals will assess and diagnose any co-occurring mental health conditions that may be contributing to the addiction issue. Then, simultaneous treatment for all co-occurring disorders should be provided.

As the use of khat has become extremely common with more than 10 million people chewing khat on a daily basis, according to BMC Public Healthtreatment programs are becoming more accustomed to addressing addiction to the substance.

Considerations in Choosing a Treatment Facility

When choosing an addiction treatment facility, it’s important to consider the type of treatment that works best for your particular situation. If you are able to take a leave of absence from work and home responsibilities, inpatient care might be the best option, allowing you to wholly focus on your recovery.

If this isn’t an option, you can still obtain the same high-quality care on an outpatient basis. Outpatient care programs vary greatly, with some intensive outpatient programs offering care that rivals the intensity of inpatient treatment programs, with the only variation that clients return home to sleep each night. Other programs offer lighter and more flexible therapy schedules.

Location obviously plays a role in the chosen treatment center. In some instances, it may be preferable to seek treatment away from home, as clients are then removed from temptations and triggers that may have contributed to their ongoing substance abuse. In other cases, a facility close to home might be best so family and loved ones can stay involved in the treatment process.

Price is also a factor, and insurance may be more apt to cover certain types of programs. Once you have chosen a prospective facility, contact your insurance company to see what portion of the costs they’ll cover. Specialists at rehab centers are generally able to assist with this process, so you are fully aware of any upfront costs you’ll be responsible for paying.

Since khat use has such a large cultural component, it’s important that treatment addresses this aspect, especially considering many people may return to home environments, or at least social situations, where others may be abusing khat. With a good foundation in recovery, these individuals will be able to resist relapse and continue in a lifetime of sustained sobriety.

About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of Greenhouse Treatment Center is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed... Read More