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Kratom leaves

What Is Kratom?

At first, there doesn’t appear to be much in common with the tropical forests of Thailand and the Internet, but they are both abuzz with one topic of controversy: the Mitragyna speciosa korth tree, or “kratom,” as it is known in the Thai language.

The leaves look like anything you might find in a garden or on the side of the road, but the effect produced by the leaves is anything but of the garden variety. The debate continues as to whether kratom is harmful or helpful, beneficial or bad, but the more you know about kratom, the better your decisions surrounding the drug will be.

Kratom in the Body

Kratom is taken in a number of ways. The most popular is by simply chewing the leaf (which local Thai people have been doing for thousands of years), but the leaf can also be grounded and mixed with coffee, tea, or warm water, which is a more contemporary method of intake.

One of the things that make kratom so debated is that there are a number of different alkaloids in it, and how kratom affects the body and mind depends on how much of those different alkaloids are taken.

For example, at low doses (2-15 grams), the mitragynine stimulant in kratom provides a short-term boost of happiness and strength, so farmers and laborers are fond of chewing the leaf before their workday starts. Users also report feeling relaxed and sociable, even more sexually functional, so kratom enjoys popularity as a social bonding substance, in a comparable way that alcohol and coffee are commonly used in Western societies at the start or end of a day to bring people together.

When higher doses (16-50 grams) are involved, the user takes in more of the 7-hydroxymitragynine alkaloid, which is a sedative and analgesic. Physical pain is not as distressing or uncomfortable, and the user feel pleasantly lethargic, almost to the point of feeling like she is deeply asleep. A user may not be able to think very clearly or perform sexually, and this state may last into the next day.

‘Felt Like Death’

Young woman sick from kratom

All this sounds mostly innocuous, but long-term consumption of kratom slowly begins to work against a user, causing a number of undesirable effects:

  • Weight loss
  • Darkened skin
  • Dryness in the mouth
  • Constipation
  • Frequent urination

Unlike with many other drugs, there have been no confirmed kratom-related fatalities in the United States. While it might be tempting to think of kratom as a mostly harmless substance, according to Fox News, the full truth is that trying to break a kratom habit causes withdrawal effects in a user, including:

  • Hostility and aggression
  • Uncontrolled tearing of the eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Muscle pain
  • Involuntary limb movements
  • Diarrhea

A kratom user speaking to CBS in Los Angeles said that he or she “felt like death” after going two days without using. Experiencing these effects might be enough to convince a user to keep using kratom even if he genuinely wants to stop, thereby deepening his dependence on the leaf.

Does Kratom Help People?

All that said, kratom’s opioid qualities make it a popular method of treating such conditions as depression, hypertension, and even other forms of opioid withdrawal. Forbes magazine reports that many people claim kratom helped wean them off a number of powerful antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications. A headline from Vice proclaims that “Kratom Tea is the Beverage of Recovering Heroin Addicts,” though the article concluded with the writer expressing concern that kratom advocates feel a want, or even a need, to consume kratom every day.

Researchers at the University of Mississippi isolated the mitragynine alkaloid in kratom leaves and found that it was superior to methadone as a withdrawal facilitator when tested on mice that had been exposed to morphine. A faculty member of the university’s School of Pharmacy explained that mitragynine “completely blocked” all the expected withdrawal systems, and that kratom could offer a “remarkable” treatment for addicts of morphine, oxycodone, or heroin. Concurrently, Clinical Toxicology mentioned that one of kratom’s minor alkaloids is reported to be more powerful than morphine, concluding that kratom is worthy of discussion as an “emerging psychoactive dietary supplement.” The Journal of Addiction pointed out the irony that kratom can assist with cases of significant opioid withdrawal, while causing its own withdrawal symptoms – albeit “modest” ones, according to the article’s writers.

A human example of how kratom might prove popular in such applications comes from a veteran who became addicted to the pain management drugs he was given after the 13 surgeries he endured. He refused to take more of his prescribed medication and instead turned to kratom, which, not being as strongly habit-forming as prescription narcotics, made a significant difference in his life. The veteran told Fox19 that while continuing to receive the same kind of medication was nothing more than a temporary measure to solve a bigger problem, kratom addressed both his mental and physical concerns.

Other medical conditions that advocates claim kratom can assist with are multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, says Vice magazine. Vocativ, comparing and contrasting the extreme range of opinions and reactions to kratom, mentions that supporters endorse the leaf for its properties as a “natural painkiller.” The writer of the Vice article mentioned above spoke to a 19-year old man with ADHD who said that kratom helped him calm down, and a woman in Seattle tells Q13 Fox that after being prescribed “every pharmaceutical drug known to man,” kratom is the only thing that treats her anxiety and depression problems.

However, not everyone is convinced that kratom is the best way to get people off opiates. The founder and director of Assisted Recovery Centers of America tells the Phoenix New Times that there’s no science in using kratom to treat addiction to opioid drugs, calling it merely a “substitute.” It might make you feel good, he says, but then you’re addicted to the kratom instead. In the same New Times article, the co-medical director of a drug information center in Arizona says that, while he has not personally observed any worrisome side effects of kratom, two of the kratom users he has treated “really wanted to get back on it.”

Kratom and the DEA

Despite assurances from kratom advocates that the leaf is more therapeutic than recreational, vendors (both online and in places like Lakewood, Ohio, according to the USA Today) market kratom as a “legal high” while studiously avoiding referring to it as a drug, which has made the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration interested.

Notwithstanding anecdotal stories of kratom alleviating pain and providing an alternative to prescription medication, the DEA considers the leaf to be of no legitimate medical use, putting kratom on its list of drugs of concern. Kratom consumption can lead to addiction, cautions the DEA, but with information on its usage in America limited – the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reports that human clinical studies on kratom usage are scarce) – and no national drug abuse surveys testing for it, the DEA has refrained from recommending that kratom be added to the Controlled Substances Act.

However, the DEA don’t have to look too far from kratom’s origins to find some troubling data: Thailand’s Office of the Narcotics Board surveyed 1,000 teenagers in three provinces and found that 94 percent of them used kratom. The New York Times reports that the cooking up a kratom brew is cheap, and it can be done with the approval of elders and family members because it is not seen as harmful or culturally unacceptable as alcohol.

Nonetheless, says a spokesperson for the DEA’s Phoenix division, kratom is not remotely good for anyone. While the DEA cannot legally do anything about kratom, the agency strongly recommends anyone from using it, with the spokesperson telling the Phoenix New Times, “[Kratom] is not good at all.”

The New Fashion

Kratom is a substance that carries a lot of allure to it as a mystical, exotic alternative to the clinical, processed, and corporate painkilling medication of the drug-crazed Western world – what The Observer called “the new fashion.” This is similar to the way that traditional and alternative medicine and homeopathy have enjoyed booming popularity for treating any number of conditions, despite skepticism from the mainstream scientific and medical community. Indeed, Vocativ called kratom a “trendy internet drug,” with users on various websites self-reporting that kratom either changed every aspect of their lives for the better or made them swear off drugs completely.

The debate over kratom will likely not be concluded soon, but for all the questions you might have about the leaf, what it does to you, and what might happen if you can’t stop using it, there are answers. At Next Generation Village, we have expert staff members who can give you all the information you need to know about kratom. If you’re worried that your son or daughter might be hooked on kratom, we can help. Call to learn more about our teen addiction treatment programs.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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