What is Kratom?
Kratom (scientific name: mitragyna speciosa) is an evergreen tree from the coffee family. It flourishes in tropical climates like Southeast Asia, Africa, and Papua New Guinea. In their native languages, kratom is called biak, ketum or kakuam, ithang and thom.
For centuries, kratom was used as a natural painkiller and energy booster. Farmers would even carry little pouches of Kratom leaves to the fields, and chew them whenever they felt tired or overheated. You could say it was their version of a coffee break.
Kratom was also used in traditional medicines. It was dried and used in teas, or sometimes chewed or rolled into a cigarette. Even in the modern era, it was embraced by practitioners of herbal medicines. Kratom pills and capsules were prescribed for muscle pain, chronic fatigue, depression, and stomach problems like diarrhea. It was also used in drug rehabilitation to help manage the withdrawal symptoms from heroin or prescription narcotics.
However, Kratom was thrown into controversy – and even banned in some countries – because it was classified as a dangerous and addictive drug. In the United States, kratom is still legal but under review. Several people, medical specialists and addiction specialists have stepped up to say that it should be seen as alternative medicine. Jack Henningfield, a well-respected addiction specialist from John Hopkins University, even submitted a report that defended that it should be regulated as a natural supplement.
According to Kratom advocates, most of the fears surrounding this drug is based on speculation and misconception. So, what is kratom – its composition, uses, benefits, and risks? This article can help lay out the facts for you.
THE CHEMISTRY OF KRATOM
In order to really understand what is kratom’s benefits and risks – and whether it should really be classified as a dangerous drug — we need to go into its chemical composition.
When these alkaloids react to our brain’s opioid receptors, it triggers feelings of pleasure, minimizes the feeling of pain, and can be calming or sedating. In large doses, it can have hallucinatory and euphoric effects similar to opioids. In smaller and controlled doses, it feels exactly as you would after a cup of coffee or a glass of wine: increased energy, alertness, and sociability.
Kratom’s effects can be felt as quickly as 10 minutes after intake and then last for five hours. It has a half-life of 3.85 hours – very short – so the “peak” benefits are most felt after an hour and a half before gradually decreasing.
MEDICAL USES OF KRATOM
Since kratom behaves quite similarly to prescription opioids and heroin, but has less severe side effects and health risks, it is used for patients in rehabilitation to manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings. (Note, however, that the medical community has not endorsed kratom as an official treatment, and still recommends using approved prescription drugs administered by a trained addiction expert.)
Aside from this, kratom has been used to manage pain (especially among patients who seek palliative care), reduce depression and anxiety, and increase energy levels.
Let’s not forget that kratom was once used by ancient tribes the same way we use aspirin. It has anti-inflammatory and antipyretic properties (or in layman’s terms, it can lower fever and swelling), can suppress coughs, and alleviate digestion problems and diarrhea.
There is also anecdotal evidence that kratom can lower blood pressure and improve your sexual prowess, but there have been no clinical studies, and based on its chemical properties it can work both ways: in the right doses it can improve blood flow to the heart and other organs, but in the wrong doses it can act as a depressant.
KRATOM SIDE EFFECTS
First of all, there are known side effects which can be mild to severe depending on the dosage and even the quality of the the medicine. These include nausea and dizziness, itchiness and skin irritation, increased sweating, and dry mouth. Some people also notice an increased need to urinate, mild constipation, and a drop in appetite.
More dangerous side effects include seizures and hallucinations. There have been reports of deaths that could have been caused by Kratom. There were 44 deaths reported in the United States in 2017, which prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to warn the public against abuse of the drug. However, reports showed that in all these deaths, kratom was mixed with other illegal drugs such as opioids and benzodiazepines, alcohol, or overdoses of over-the-counter cough syrup or loperamide.
For example, one study in Sweden found that kratom was mixed with tramadol to create a powerful substance called “Krypton” that had even higher euphoric effects. Unfortunately, this kratom cocktail led to the deaths of 9 people in one year.
It is thus impossible to determine if kratom alone was responsible for the death, or if it is only dangerous when mixed with other substances.
Kratom addiction and withdrawal
While kratom is used to manage withdrawal symptoms from opioid, it is also addictive itself. Kratom abuse and addiction can cause the same symptoms experienced by heroin addicts: extreme mood swings, anxiety attacks, cramps, and excessive sweating, diarrhea, and intense cravings.
Extensive kratom abuse can also damage the liver, contribute to hypothyroidism and low blood pressure, and affect the nervous system (seizures, tremors, and jerky arm and leg movements). Since kratom can suppress the appetite, long-term use can lead to anorexia and dangerous weight loss.
Just like any drug, kratom should be used in moderation and prescribed doses set by an experienced alternative or traditional medicine expert. This is especially important if you are taking other medication that can interact with it, or have a history of high blood pressure or chronic kidney or liver disease.
Availability and legality
Kratom is still legal in the United States, though it is being investigated and can be more difficult to obtain. Some states — such as Indiana, Wisconsin, Arkansas and the District of Columbia — have already banned its use within their boundaries. Check your state laws to find out what is kratom’s status in your area. Kratom is often sold online, but it is necessary to check the source and ensure that you are not getting subquality or tainted kratom powder.
Kratom: Healthy or harmful?
Kratom is a controversial drug, and just like marijuana and other traditional herbal medicines, you can find a lot of evidence for both sides. Some people say it’s dangerous and addictive; others say that any drug can be dangerous and addictive when it is being abused, and its health benefits far outweigh the side effects as long as it’s used in the proper way.
As a consumer, you have a choice. Just make it an informed choice. If you are interested in taking kratom to relieve pain, anxiety or fatigue, then do more research. You need to know and understand as much as you can about what it is, what it does, how it can interact with the other medicines you’re taking, and whether the risks pose a threat to you given your medical condition and history.
And most of all, if you take kratom and live in a state where kratom is still legal, use it responsibly. Consult with a medical practitioner, follow the recommended dose, take steps to avoid addiction and abuse, and buy only from trusted sources. Never mix kratom with other opioids or alcohol, and stop intake if you feel severe symptoms.