The opioid crisis has researchers considering all options in fighting the epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose. Some have turned to the unlikely fire of kratom to fight the fires of our opioid problem in the U.S.
Kratom is a drug that’s relatively new to the country, coming from East Asia and making its way into both recreational use and research laboratories. Illicit use of the naturally occurring psychoactive substance was reported to result in 263 poison control calls in 2015. Like most drugs, it has its fair share of adverse effects, but can it really be used to treat opioid addiction?
People have already begun treating opioid addiction with kratom. In fact, it was reported to treat opium addiction in Asia as far back as 1836. People have already started self-administering the drug for opioid withdrawal relief, as kratom is used as an opioid substitute.
One of the most significant barriers to opioid detox is the fear of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Medications are used to manage symptoms, but some have side effects and addictive qualities on their own. Could kratom be the substance that turns the tide in the fight against opioids, or do the dangers outweigh the potential benefits?
Kratom is a substance that defies conventional classification. It comes from the leaves of an evergreen tree in Southeast Asia that’s closely related to coffee plants. It has been used in its native territories for decades to manage pain and opioid withdrawal. The plant’s leaves are used to brew a tea that produces various psychoactive effects. However, as a drug, it’s difficult to define. Its properties are similar to opioids, facilitating pain relief and relaxation. But it also has properties that cause nervous system excitement like a stimulant.
When you consume kratom, the effects you experience seem to depend on the dose you take. It has also been shown to have some pain-blocking, antidepressant, and anti-anxiety effects. However, the full effects of the drug haven’t been widely studied, and there is still a lack of official research.
Kratom has a wide variety of naturally occurring psychoactive chemicals in its leaves. In fact, there are more than 25 alkaloids in the plant. However, there are two major compounds that most likely have the strongest effects. They are mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine (7-HMG). Both are said to have pain-relieving effects.
Why kratom works in the brain is still largely unknown. However, we do know that both mitragynine and 7-HMG acts as mild partial opioid agonists. This means the chemical compounds found in the plant bind to opioid receptors in the nervous system and partially activate them, causing mild opioid effects. Though 7-HMG exists in the plant in smaller amounts, it seems to have a stronger affinity and binds more readily.
Other drugs that partially agonize opioid receptors have had success as opioid addiction and withdrawal medications. Typically, the partial binding is enough to each withdrawal symptoms without causing powerful euphoric effects or other adverse reactions.
Kratom-use has been slowly growing at the street level. It’s sometimes used as a recreational drug, sometimes called the legal opioid. As new cases of kratom overdose and poisoning are reported, states have begun outlawing the drug. As of this year, it has been outlawed in six states.
Still, it has become increasingly known as a do-it-yourself opioid withdrawal remedy. Its murky legality, and the fact that it binds to opioid receptors, makes it an attractive choice for people who are looking to get out from under opioid dependence.
It also appeals to people who have become addicted and can no longer require prescription opioids. Users report successfully treating opioid withdrawal symptoms and weaning off the drug with success.
However, there is still a lot to learn about kratom. Even though there has been a lot of anecdotal reports of its effectiveness and a few studies, they are a variety of adverse effects that can be potentially dangerous. Because the effects of kratom are poorly understood, the consequences of self-administered use can be unpredictable. If you encounter any medical complications while using kratom on your own, your life may be at risk.
For instance, one published case study investigated a patient who used kratom to self-manage opioid withdrawal symptoms. After using the drug, the patient experienced a seizure, and researchers confirmed that there were no contaminants in the drug. The study highlights the potential risk of self-administering any potent psychoactive substance without consulting a doctor, especially one that’s as unresearched as kratom.
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Though there is still a lot of research to be done to determine the full range of effects and side effects of kratom, various adverse reactions have been reported. As with most drugs, kratom has the potential to cause side effects that can come from normal use. Many symptoms seem to be similar to side effects that come from typical opioid use. However, it also shows some side effects seem to come from its stimulant nature. Adverse reactions can include:
Studies have also shown some more severe side effects that can be triggered by moderate-to-heavy kratom use. Kratom causes stimulant effects at lower doses and opioid effects at moderate levels. However, if you are taking the amount needed to cause opioid-like effects, you may also feel tachycardia, constipation, hypotension, dry mouth, and sweating.
With frequent high doses, you may also start to experience tremors, anorexia, weight loss, and seizures. It can also cause dangerous psychological symptoms like aggression, hostility, and psychosis.
High doses can increase the potential toxic effects of kratom. According to one study, kratom can cause intrahepatic cholestasis (a liver disorder in pregnant women), seizure, arrhythmia, impair memory function, coma, and death in some people. Serious medical problems can occur with the use of kratom, and its benefits are in the shadow of its apparent dangers.
Many studies and reviews of kratom’s usefulness and safety, like the one from the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, come to the same conclusion: “Our data analysis has not determined if biochemical benefits of kratom may prove to outweigh its toxicity and risks.”
While most researchers believe kratom is worth studying more thoroughly, it seems too dangerous to use as a viable treatment option.
Currently, opioids dependence is treated with cold turkey detox or via a tapering method. Quitting cold turkey is safe with medical attention, but it’s extremely unpleasant. The flu-like symptoms are often described as one of the worst cases of flu a person experiences in their lifetime.
Everyone experiences the flu at some point in their life, but opioid detox is often a significant barrier to treatment because of how intense symptoms can be. Plus, opioid withdrawal can come with some intense drug cravings that make resisting relapse difficult. Some people go through medical detox and give up opioids cold turkey without relapsing. Through detox, medical professionals monitor you 24 hours a day and help treat uncomfortable symptoms.
After about a week, your acute withdrawal period is over, and you may continue on to the next level of care in addiction treatment. However, in cases of chronic relapse, other methods like medication-assisted treatment or MAT may be used.
MAT uses buprenorphine, Suboxone, and partial opioid agonists to satisfy cravings and avoid withdrawal without causing intoxication. MAT or tapering with opioids may prolong the withdrawal process when you decide to break opioid dependence, but it can make symptoms less severe.
If you have struggled with opioid addiction and withdrawal symptoms in the past, and you are looking for a way to safely achieve sobriety, there is help available. It’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Addiction is a chronic and progressive disease. Without treatment, it can start to get worse, taking over different parts of your life, including your health, relationships, and financial stability.
Detox can help you go through withdrawal symptoms safely and as comfortable as possible. With 24-hour medical care, your team of medical professionals will be able to help ensure your safety and treat uncomfortable symptoms.
After detox, clinicians can connect you to the next level of care that’s right for you. Through opioid addiction treatment, you may be able to achieve long-lasting sobriety and a life free from active addiction.
Learn more about opioid addiction and how it can be treated to take the first steps on your road to recovery today.
Anwar, M., MD, Law, R., Ph.D., & Schier, J., MD. (2017, August 24). Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6529a4.htm
Boyer, E. W., Babu, K. M., Adkins, J. E., McCurdy, C. R., & Halpern, J. H. (2008, June). Self-treatment of opioid withdrawal using kratom (Mitragynia speciosa korth). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3670991/
Fluyau, D., & Revadigar, N. (2017, April 24). Biochemical Benefits, Diagnosis, and Clinical Risks Evaluation of Kratom. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5402527/
Warner, M. L., Kaufman, N. C., & Grundmann, O. (2016, January). The pharmacology and toxicology of kratom: From traditional herb to drug of abuse. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26511390