Kratom: What it Is, Where it Came From, & Why Everyone's Concerned

kratom effects

Some call it a solution for opioid addiction. Some call it a natural and safe alternative to opiate drugs. Some say that it can help with painful opioid withdrawal. Yet science says this drug is none-of-the-above, but rather, a dangerous opioid itself. And as parents, educators, and clinical professionals, we should all be aware of it.

The drug is called kratom. It has been flooding the news in recent weeks – with stories surging about the drug, its outbreak, and its link to overdoses. Within the last month, kratom has also been frequent topic of concern among the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). But what is kratom, and what’s the deal with it?

What is Kratom?

In its most natural form, kratom is a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia. Its leaves, according to the DEA, possess a psychoactive ingredient that many people abuse to get “high.” Kratom leaves are crushed and often smoked, brewed with tea, or placed into gel capsules for oral consumption. At low doses, kratom can produce effects similar to stimulant drugs – alertness, increased energy. At high doses, kratom actually produces sedative effects that mimic opiate drugs.

For centuries, kratom was used by laborers in Southeast Asia seeking a boost in energy to finish a day’s work. Many would also use the drug to relax. Sources say that, internationally, the drug has also been used medicinally to manage pain and recreationally to get high.

Recently, however, kratom has started appearing on the shelves of smoke shops and “health” stores across the United States. Many people are looking to kratom as a “natural alternative” to kick their prescription painkiller habit. Some are purchasing kratom to ease opiate withdrawal symptoms. Others are using it simply to get high. Many users see kratom as an herbal supplement, having the mindset, “it is natural so therefore it is safe.”

But does kratom abuse truly come without risk?

The Power of Kratom

Kratom is on the DEA’s list of ‘Drugs and Chemicals of Concern’ and has not been approved for any medical use in the United States. Numerous cities, states, and countries have gone as far as to ban kratom sale and use – not simply because it is a drug, but because of the dangers that ensue from it.

As mentioned above, low doses of kratom will produce effects similar to stimulant drugs like cocaine. At high doses, however, the effects are much more sedative. Both instances produce feelings of euphoria, however, this is far outweighed by kratom’s adverse effects. Negative effects of kratom include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Itching
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Sedation and analgesia
  • Delusion and confusion
  • Abnormal heartbeat
  • Hepatotoxicity
  • Seizures
  • Psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations
  • Addiction

Users of kratom report that the drug produces effects similar to prescription opioids, and that the side effects of kratom are exacerbated in combination with other drugs. This is a major concern of the DEA, who has found other psychoactive products, such as synthetic cannabinoids and opioids, in kratom samples. When combined with other drugs, the effects of kratom are unpredictable.

Much of kratom’s dangers lie in what actually goes into the drug, beyond kratom itself. Because kratom isn’t regulated, shipments from other countries may include other, unknown substances and chemicals in the capsules. Recently, kratom products were linked to an outbreak of serious Salmonella infections across the United States. As of the end of February 2018, 40 Americans were suffering a Salmonella infection, and report that their symptoms developed within days of consuming a kratom product. Salmonella is bacteria that typically travels as a foodborne illness, yet strangely, was transferred through kratom drugs. Most people affected by the recent outbreak have been hospitalized.

Perhaps the most notable, long-term effect of kratom is its potential for drug addiction. Many people use kratom to try to wean off an opioid addiction, but the truth is (and what many do not realize), kratom is in itself an addictive opioid drug. According to a statement last month from the FDA, the “compounds in kratom make it so it isn’t just a plant – it’s an opioid. And it’s an opioid that’s associated with novel risks because of the variability in how it’s being formulated, sold and used.”

Like heroin or OxyContin, the active ingredients in kratom bind to the opioid receptors in our body and can eventually lead to tolerance and dependence on the drug. Cited by U.S. Pharmacist, the DEA reports that “addiction or dependence and withdrawal have been documented with long-term, regular use of kratom.” Withdrawal symptoms can include seizures and liver damage. If someone you love is using kratom, know the risks that exist.

Plant or Peril?

The challenge with kratom is that it has been used historically in other countries, and it is derived from a tropical plant. Because it is botanical, advocates believe kratom is safe. However, it is important to remember that, like kratom, heroin and morphine, cocaine and marijuana, also all came from plants.

Does that make them safe to use? Not necessarily.

Between January 2010 and December 2015, there were 660 documented calls to the U.S. poison centers relating to kratom exposure – a ten-fold increase over five years. Of these cases, 65 percent were from kratom use on its own – 35 percent of the calls involved kratom with other substances. According to the U.S. Pharmacist, the DEA concluded that the “consumption of kratom individually, or in conjunction with alcohol or other drugs, is of serious concern as it can lead to severe adverse effects and death.” 

A recent statement from the Federal Drug Administration, released just last month, reveals there are now 44 reported deaths associated with the use of kratom – up from 36 deaths in November 2017.

Kratom Drug Treatment

Kratom is much like a sister or cousin-drug to heroin, in that it is an opioid, that is derived from a plant, and that it is addictive. It should not be used to wean off opioids or to alleviate opioid withdrawal symptoms. There is no scientific evidence supporting the safety of kratom. However, there are other, FDA-approved options available. The FDA writes:

“We recognize that many people have unmet needs when it comes to treating pain or addiction disorders. For individuals seeking treatment for opioid addiction who are being told that kratom can be an effective treatment, I urge you to seek help from a health care provider. There are safe and effective, FDA-approved medical therapies available for the treatment of opioid addiction. Combined with psychosocial support, these treatments are effective.”

If your loved one is using kratom or is in need of professional, opioid addiction treatment, please do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge. We are a preeminent drug treatment center in Connecticut, offering drug rehab programs for young men and young women alike. Call us at 877-581-1793 to learn more.