- Lychees are thought to have caused a mysterious disease epidemic in India
- Some crops contain neurotoxins that are harmful if eaten unripe and in large enough quantities
(CNN)Underneath its spiky exterior, the fruit is smooth, juicy and beautifully sweet.
The spikes of the lychee fruit -- also known as litchi -- may be a deterrent for some animals, but for humans willing to break it away, it's an exotic and tasty treat. And often, just one is not enough.
But if eaten too early, particularly by someone who missed their evening meal or by a child in a malnourished state, this seemingly sweet fruit can be toxic and sometimes fatal, as shown recently by a mystery illness that affected the town of Muzaffarpur in India -- the country's largest lychee-producing region.
Each year, hundreds of children in India alone may be hospitalized with fever, convulsions and seizures. A recent report revealed they are probably due to toxins from unripe lychees. Combined with low blood sugar or malnourishment, these toxins can result in even lower blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. They block the body's production of sugar, which becomes especially dangerous when we sleep and our blood sugar levels naturally fall.
This could lead to an encephalopathy, a change in brain functioning, said Dr. Padmini Srikantiah of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in India, who led the investigation in Muzaffarpur.