The two writeups above disagree on the potency of kola nuts. I have no personal knowledge of this. Despite living
in Africa for many years I have never chewed kola. During that period of my life
I was having enough trouble with other addictive substances; I wasn’t
about to add anything else to the list.
The kola tree is a native of West Africa and was introduced to the West Indies by slave traders. The kola nut has been used by primitive peoples since time immemorial as a currency, as a social symbol, and as a health aid. Its two principal ingredients, caffeine and theobromine, are shared with other members of the cocoa family. Also known by the alternate spelling "cola", it was the base of a carbonated drink now sold around the world.
The kola tree is evergreen and dome-shaped, between 35 and 60 feet in height, resembling the common chestnut. The leaves are alternately-placed, leathery, smooth ovals between 8 to 6 inches long by 1 to 2 inches broad. The trunk is erect and cylindrical with thick green bark. The kola makes a nice shade tree, having a spread of 20 to 25 feet.
The trees are generally either male or female, although most male trees have at least a few hermaphrodite flowers. The flower has no petals. It has five sepals which are yellowish-white with maroon or reddish blotches. The pollen is not transported by the wind and relatively few insects visit the flowers, which have a fetid odor. Kola is a relatively self-sterile crop which causes a problem for kola farmers.
The kola grows just above sea level and is found mainly in the coastal areas of West Africa (between Sierra Leone and the Congo) although when soil and climate conditions are favorable it can be found in the rainforest regions of Central Africa.
Out of roughly 125 species of kola, the bulk of all kola nuts produced come from the species C. nitida and C. acuminate. The tree starts bearing at 6 to 10 years with full production reached at 20 years. Nut production may continue until the tree is 70 to 100 years old.
The nuts are produced in green follicles, each pod producing three to six nuts. The nuts are reddish-purple or white, irregular in shape due to being nestled in the follicle, and somewhat resemble a horse-chestnut in their triangular shape. The nuts are harvested by hand, removed from their follicles, fermented for five days before being washed and stored. They will keep for several months. Harvesting is generally between October to December but some nuts are available throughout the year.
Nigeria is the principal producer of kola nuts. Latest figures show an annual production of approximately 150,000 tons. With about 500 pounds per acre, this would indicate that more than half a million acres are in kola production. While a few hundred tons are exported to the United States for use as alternate medicine, the bulk of the crop is consumed in Nigeria and surrounding countries.
Usage for medicinal purposes
Intensive studies at the end of the 19th century showed that kola had a tonic influence on the stomach and improved digestion by either increasing secretion or by acting upon the circular fibers of the stomach. It was also recognized as an aid in sea sickness. Africans today still use kola for treatment of diarrhea, typhoid and other fevers, as well as to arrest vomiting induced by pregnancy.
Kola is a central nervous system stimulant. It will act as an antidepressant, a diuretic and an astringent. The caffeine content may be useful in relieving migraine headaches. Containing phenolics and anthrocyanin, it can induce antioxidant activity.
The main use of kola in Africa that I have seen (aside from symbolic social acts) is to increase the capacity for physical exertion and for enduring fatigue without food. The average African laborer has a poor diet and therefore tires quickly. Kola consumption is his remedy for this. As kola exerts an action upon the muscular system, increasing contractility, physical strength is augmented and sustained. Kola is the poor man’s friend.
Kola is also useful in combating drowsiness. I once worked as an administrator for an oil field subcontractor in Gabon. One of our expatriate employees was a Nigerian, a former exchange student in the United States who had been an offshore engineer in Louisiana. I went to pick him up once to drive him to the crew boat when he was going out on a job. I saw him throwing a handful of kola nuts in his duffle bag. When asked what he was “doing with that s@!#”, he replied:
"Listen, if our tool is downhole for 30 hours I have to stand there on the drill floor the whole time. This stuff gives me energy and keeps me awake."
Kola is a substitute for caffeine. It contains more caffeine than coffee and less than guarana, the seeds of Paullinia cupana, a New World shrub. Indigenous people of the Amazon basin in South America use guarana to offset fatigue and hunger. The only known sources of caffeine are tea, coffee, cocoa, yerba mate and its relatives (guarana) -- and kola. All were used by primitive man, who also gave social meaning to them.
Kola nuts are chewed as part of religious rituals in Africa; Muslims consider them sacred. Kola is regarded as an aphrodisiac. Bags of kola nuts are often put into graves as a food for the dead. Red kola nuts were used as a declaration of war, white kola nuts are a symbol of peace. Kola nuts are given to visitors entering a home as a gesture of friendship and hospitality with a ritual similar to the American Indian peace pipe ceremony. Middle class and affluent African households will usually display an elaborately carved bird or animal, the tribal or personal symbol of the host, which is also a container for kola nuts.
As well as consuming them for religious, medical and social reasons, many Africans chew kola nuts on a daily basis. They are sold in the open air markets and by street vendors. When in public, it is normal to offer a piece of kola nut to those around you, whether you know them or not.
Taste and effect of kola nuts
The kola nut is very astringent with a bitter flavor, but it does leave a pleasant aftertaste. Once dried, it has an odor a bit like nutmeg. The deep breathing and other sensations described by tim_three above are, as far as I know, fairly typical. Kola is used to treat depression and anxiety and is said to produce mental stimulation. It has been used as a substitute for alcohol and nicotine. However, like alcohol, what is stimulating in moderate doses can be harmful if overdone.
Too much kola is said to cause thoughts to scatter. It is known to be highly addictive for people with habit-forming personalities. In answer to baffo's statement that kola had no more effect than a cup of strong coffee, my observation has been that indigenous Africans as a whole use stimulants (coffee, tea, alcohol, etc.) much less than Caucasians do. I am sure this is why alcohol seems to affect them much more strongly than it affects Europeans. Perhaps the same is true of kola.
Kola as an alternate, or natural medicine
Kola can be purchased in the United States and, I assume, in other Western countries. It can be bought as the whole nut, in powder form, or as capsules. Care should be taken as there are any number of adulterants used, some are harmless but others are toxic. None of them produce the effects of kola and some, while harmless, contain a large quantity of fatty oil. As kola is often used outside of Africa as a diet aid, this makes these adulterants contradictory in purpose.
If you are going to buy it, it is best to buy the whole nut and grind it in a coffee mill as the caffeine content changes drastically once the nuts are processed in any way.
As a final note, the FDA has received a large number of reports relating to adverse reactions to a product containing kola nut. A warning was issued and the manufacturer reformulated its product without the kola nut.