Kratom, Explained

Kratom powder and capsules

Dane O'Leary October 2, 2020

Reports of kratom abuse, and overdose, are on the rise. Although kratom isn’t an illicit substance, the CDC classifies it as an emerging drug of abuse, posing a threat to public health. 

Let’s learn more about what kratom is and unpack some of the problems associated with this powerful plant. Here is kratom, explained.

What Is Kratom?

Kratom is a tropical evergreen tree that’s part of the coffee plant family. Kratom leaves, or extracts from the leaves, can have effects similar to that of opioids and stimulants on the human brain. Kratom is often sold in alternative medicine or vitamin supplement stores as capsules, pills, or an extract. People sometimes also chew, smoke, or brew dried kratom leaves for its mind-altering effects. 

Loosely known as the Asian substitute for opium, kratom has been used as a traditional medicine for many years. Kratom is indigenous to Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar but has been declared illegal in these countries and Australia and some parts of the EU. Kratom is legal in the US. 

In small doses, kratom can act as an energy booster and mood enhancer. Heavier amounts tend to have sedative and euphoric effects. 

Why People Use Kratom

Kratom leaves contain certain alkaloids that can help relieve pain, act as a muscle relaxant, and combat inflammation. These therapeutic properties of kratom are often why people with fibromyalgia use it as a herbal alternative to ease symptoms of this chronic pain disease. 

Kratom is also used as a natural (and some may argue, more accessible) alternative to medications like buprenorphine or methadone for treating opioid withdrawal. The alkaloids in kratom leaves interact with the opioid receptors in the brain. This means the psychotropic effects of kratom can be similar to those a person experiences when taking an opioid. 

Despite its natural form and healing properties, kratom is dangerous. And using kratom can have harmful side-effects. 

Dangers of Using Kratom

Kratom isn’t approved for medical use, and knowing the full extent of health effects this plant can have, requires a multitude of more research. Based on what we do know, side-effects of longterm kratom-use can include: 

  • lack of appetite and severe weight loss
  • constipation
  • dry mouth
  • nausea
  • seizures
  • hallucinations 

Is Kratom Addictive?

Like all opioid-like substances, kratom can lead to drug dependence. Many people experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms like muscle aches, spasms, emotional changes like irritability and aggression, and insomnia when they stop taking kratom.

In the same way, prolonged misuse of painkillers or recreational substances can pose serious health risks, it’s possible to overdose on kratom. 

Research shows that most kratom-related overdose deaths occur when a person has used it alongside other drugs too. This raises serious questions about the safety of taking kratom with other prescribed or illicit substances, as kratom’s contra-indicative properties are unknown. 

Kratom addiction and overdose are treated with the same medications typically used to treat as severe opioid use disorders (naloxone or buprenorphine). Behavioral therapies have helped some people overcome kratom addiction, but effective treatments for kratom addiction have yet to be thoroughly researched.  

Concerns Over Commercially-Produced Kratom

The potential health harm kratom use can cause, outweigh the perceived medicinal benefits this plant may bring.

There have been reports of commercial forms of kratom being laced with other harmful compounds, resulting in death. Similarly, in recent years, the FDA has linked at least 35 deaths and more than 100 salmonella poisoning cases to kratom products contaminated with salmonella bacteria. The potential health harm kratom use can cause outweigh the perceived medicinal benefits this plant may bring.  

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