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What is Kratom?

Published in Safety on March 28, 2018

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Kratom is an herb originating in Southeast Asia. The kratom plant has been a staple of the region’s traditional medicine for centuries, often used as a treatment for pain and anxiety. More recently, some people have found kratom effective for treating the symptoms of withdrawal from opioids and other drugs. Despite these apparent benefits, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States recently identified kratom as having opioid-like qualities and a high potential for abuse and addiction.

How Does Kratom Work?

People smoke and chew the kratom plant as well as make it into tea or grind it into powder for capsules. The substance acts as a stimulant, increasing energy and reducing fatigue in low doses. Larger doses, however, can produce euphoric effects. Many people in the United States have started using kratom as an alternative to other illicit drugs and as a remedy for opioid withdrawal. While some people say that kratom has potential for applications in substance abuse treatment, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) recently attempted to classify kratom as a Schedule I controlled substance, which would have banned the use of kratom in the United States. However, public outcry encouraged the DEA to stop pushing for Schedule I status for kratom.

Dangers of Kratom

The FDA has linked 44 deaths to kratom use since 2011 and calls to poison control centers for kratom-related issues increased tenfold between 2010 and 2015. This was a noticeable increase, but only 7% of the calls were for serious side effects. The American Kratom Association (AKA), a nonprofit advocacy group focused on improving public perception of kratom and extolling the substance’s potential in medical treatment, recently reported that up to 5 million Americans have tried kratom. The group claims that any adverse events associated with kratom use are largely due to altered kratom supplies, additives, or prior drug use.

Calls to poison control centers about kratom indicate that abuse of the substance or too high a dose can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, disorientation, and irritability. Since kratom is unregulated, added substances are a major concern for users. The DEA has identified kratom products laced with tramadol and other opioid-based substances, and the DEA claims some businesses may dangerously attempt to boost the potency of their kratom products by adding these substances.

The FDA analysis of the substance showed that kratom contains several active compounds that are functionally like those found in prescription opioid medications. Despite these findings, some researchers point to the presence of Mitragynine as a medically valid reason to explore more applications for kratom. Mitragynine mitigates pain without suppressing respiratory functions the way many opioid medications do. One of the most dangerous aspects of prescription opioids is the possibility of them causing respiratory depression, a leading cause of accidental opioid deaths.

Kratom and Substance Abuse

Advocates of kratom such as the AKA claim that the substance is a valuable medical asset, particularly when it comes to treating anxiety, chronic pain, and the symptoms of opioid withdrawal. However, some recent users reported that they essentially traded one addiction for another. After recovering from opioid addiction and using kratom to allay the withdrawal symptoms, the individual eventually becomes dependent on the kratom. It’s vital for anyone in treatment or recovery for substance abuse to realize that kratom can be habit-forming.

While kratom hangs in legal limbo at the federal level, six states (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin) have banned the substance, and several cities including Denver, Colorado, have significantly restricted its availability within city limits.

Ultimately, more research is necessary before we can fully ascertain kratom’s benefits and/or dangers.

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