Let’s Talk About Khat

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A collection of growing khat shrubs.

Never heard of khat (pronounced “cot”)? That’s okay—not many people in the United States use it (its use isn’t measured, so we don’t know the exact numbers). But in some parts of the world, chewing leaves from the khat plant is a social activity, much like meeting a friend for coffee in the United States. However, khat is less like caffeine and more like cocaine.

Although we don’t yet know if khat is addictive, research shows it can be very harmful to your health, which is why it is illegal in this country. It is considered by the World Health Organization to be a drug of abuse. 

How Does Khat Affect the Brain and Body?

Khat is a stimulant drug that comes from a shrub that grows in East Africa and southern Arabia. Like chewing tobacco, leaves of the khat shrub are chewed and held in the cheek to release their chemicals.

Cathinone and cathine are the stimulants in khat that make a person feel high. In the brain, khat increases the level of dopamine, the neurotransmitter which makes you feel good. It also stimulates the release of the stress hormone norepinephrine, which makes you more alert—almost hyper.

In the body, khat can increase blood pressure and heart rate, like other stimulants. Using khat a lot or over a long period of time can cause tooth decay, gum disease, and heart problems. It can also cause problems with your stomach and digestive tract, such as constipation, ulcers, pain, and tumors.

The effects of khat can last 90 minutes to 3 hours. Users may feel depressed and irritable, and have trouble eating and sleeping once it wears off.

Who Uses Khat?

People in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula—and people who have emigrated from those areas elsewhere—are the main users of khat. People in those regions have used khat for centuries as part of their cultural traditions and social interactions, and demand for khat has increased in the United States as people from those areas have moved here.

To learn more, check out DrugFacts: Khat.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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