You get through at least a kilogram of raw carrots every day; the whites of your eyes and your skin have turned yellow; and you panic if you discover that your carrot supply has dried up. If you recognise these symptoms, you are probably addicted to raw carrots. It’s rare but it does occur. A Czech psychiatrist described three cases two decades ago.
When Ludek Zerny, a Prague psychiatrist working at a psychiatric clinic, did a literature search to see if anything was known about an unusual form of addiction that he’d stumbled across, he discovered articles on ‘hypercarotenemia’. This phenomenon refers to people whose diet contains such large quantities of carotenoids such as beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin that their skin turns orange.
In 1966 for example, the doctors John Hughes and Richard Wooten wrote an article about hypercarotenemia in JAMA. They describe two farm workers who ate unusually large quantities of carrots and tomatoes and as a result developed an orange skin colour. [JAMA. 1966 Aug 29; 197(9): 730-1.] “The Orange People” is the name of the publication. It’s a classic.
A survey of the literature will reveal that doctors observe hypercarotenemia above all in people with a light skin colour. That’s logical: discolouration of the skin is more noticeable in a lighter than a darker skin. But extreme levels of carrot consumption can lead to orange colouring of the soles of the feet and palms of the hand in dark people.
In the literature however there’s no mention of the psychological side of excessive carrot consumption. Zerny had been confronted with the psychological side several times. He had encountered three people who were addicted to raw carrots.
The first time was in 1954, Zerny writes in his article that was published in 1992 in the British Journal of Addiction. He met a woman in an institution who ate a kilogram of raw carrots every day, and who told that she had panic attacks when carrots weren’t available in the shops in the winter. [In 1954 Czechoslovakia was communist – and poor.]
The woman’s appearance proved that she was not just fantasising. The whites of her eyes and her skin were orange. What became of the woman Zerny didn’t know; he lost contact with her.
In the mid-1980s Zerny came across another case of carrot addiction: a woman in her mid thirties who had started eating carrots when she stopped smoking during her pregnancy and had become addicted to them. She had an orange skin and said she was just as addicted to carrots as she was to smoking. She panicked if she had no more carrots. If she discovered that she’d run out of carrots and the shops were shut, she d borrow carrots from her neighbours.
When people around her started to make jokes about her carrot consumption, she started to eat them secretly. Sometimes she stole carrots that were meant for horses from a stable.
Zerny analysed her blood and found abnormalities.
In the end the woman managed to overcome her addiction. When Zerny examined her blood again the abnormalities had disappeared. They were the consequence of her carrot consumption, not the cause of it.
While cooking one day the woman ate one of the carrots she was preparing raw and noticed that it would take little to become addicted again.
The third case that Zerny described was of a man who wanted to stop smoking and started chewing carrots to curb his desire for cigarettes. He quickly became addicted, and ate so many carrots that he started to feel it in his purse. He admitted that stopping smoking had been easier than stopping eating carrots.
Zerny couldn’t explain the three cases in his article, but mentioned that all three carrot addicts smoked and that their carrot addiction was similar to their tobacco addiction. He wondered whether carrots contain an addictive substance that affects the nicotine receptor? Was beta-carotene addictive perhaps? Or was it the chewing that became addictive? His three carrot addicts were not addicted to cooked carrots and were not excited by them either.
Zerny wrote his article to alert them to this intriguing phenomenon, in the hope that they knew more…
Can carrots be addictive? An extraordinary form of drug dependence.
Cerný L, Cerný K.
Antialcoholic Department, Psychiatric Clinic, Prague, Czechoslovakia.
The paper describes three cases of dependence on carotenoids with typical symptoms of irritability and nervousness accompanying their abstinence, with a long-term dependence, and an inability to simply discontinue. Three patients (a man and two women) all being smokers, evaluated this dependence as very similar to that on tobacco. The limitation of further use had the same effect in both cases. The women evaluate the dependence as stronger than that on cigarettes, the man as somewhat weaker. The former patient–a woman–even relapsed, and recently found herself in danger of further relapse. This, however, she nipped in the bud. Laboratory enzyme examinations revealed a disorder in the enzymatic outfit affecting the auto-immunity and the neurovegetative system.
PMID: 1511232 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]