Harmful or Healing: What is Kratom?
“Natural,” “mild and pleasant,” “a solution for opioid addiction;” these are a few of the ways the substance kratom has been described in the media. Yet, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has long warned users about the “deadly risks” associated with consuming this herb, and just today issued a statement noting it should be treated no less seriously than other addictive opioids. So, what is kratom, why is it growing in popularity and what risks does it pose to users?
From Southeast Asia to the States
Indigenous to Thailand and Southeast Asia, the leaves of the Mitragyna speciosa plant – better known as kratom – have historically been consumed by farmers and rubber trappers seeking additional energy. It has also been used medicinally to manage pain, diarrhea, and coughing and recreationally to produce a euphoric high.
More recently, products made from the plant have started appearing in both drug paraphernalia stores and holistic health food shops throughout the U.S. and Europe. Sold in a variety of formats ranging from capsules to beverages, some individuals seeking alternatives to prescription pain relievers, assistance going through opioid withdrawal or just a way to get high have experimented with kratom.
A Powerful Plant
Despite the speculative benefits, kratom use may result in a variety of adverse effects, just like those experienced with the use of other opioids, such as nausea, psychosis, seizures, depression, liver damage and even death. As a drug with opioid properties, Kratom activates the areas of the brain responsible for controlling pain, reward and addictive behaviors and, as such, is an addictive substance.
For these reasons, and more, kratom is listed as a controlled substance in 16 countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, Sweden and Germany. It has also been banned in several states including Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee and Wisconsin, while more are working to do the same.
While there has been speculation about kratom’s potential for healing, the FDA states that kratom poses significant harm to those using it recreationally, to self-medicate for pain or treat opioid withdrawal symptoms. Furthermore, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., said in a statement, “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 healthcare provider. There are safe and effective, FDA-approved medical therapies available for the treatment of opioid addiction.”
In the wake of the current opioid epidemic, our nation cannot afford to tackle the potential fallout from yet another addictive substance promoted, without sound evidence, as a cure for pain or opioid addiction.
Note: this blog was updated following the release of “Statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on the agency’s scientific evidence on the presence of opioid compounds in kratom, underscoring its potential for abuse.”
Hannah Freedman is a communications and digital associate at Center on Addiction