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The popularity of kratom in the United States has been on the rise for more than 20 years but picked up steam in the past decade. Those who advocate for its use often tout the drug as a safer alternative to prescription opioids such as oxycodone for uses like pain management – as well as an effective aid for treating opioid withdrawal.

Opponents of kratom use, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have singled out kratom as a dangerous, unregulated, and addictive substance that they say results in opioid-like abuse, addiction, and overdose.

So, what is the truth about kratom?

What is kratom?

Kratom is an evergreen tree (Mitragyna Speciosa) native to Southeast Asia where it’s been used for more than a century in traditional medicines and recreationally. The leaves of the tree can be chewed or made into a tea, but in the United States, it’s much more commonly found processed and packed into capsules or tablets, or even as a liquid extract.

Kratom contains a number of chemicals that contribute to its psychotropic effects, but the two key compounds are mitragynine and 7-α-hydroxymitragynine. These interact with opioid receptors in the brain to produce euphoria and pain-relieving effects similar to opioid drugs like morphine. Mitragynine also interacts with other receptor systems in the brain, causing a stimulant-like effect.

What are the effects of kratom?

The primary effects are dose- and strain-dependent, meaning they can vary based on how much of the drug is taken and the specific strain of the plant is used (different strains have different levels of mitragynine and 7-α-hydroxymitragynine).

In small doses (1-5 grams), users report more of a stimulant effect, including feelings of increased energy, alertness, and sociability. In larger doses (greater than 5 grams), the drug reportedly produces pain relieving and sedative effects similar to traditional opioids.  

Side effects range from the relatively minor (nausea, constipation, agitation) to the severe (liver damage, seizures, hallucinations).

Why do people use it? Uses and claims

There is no official, FDA-approved use for kratom. Many who use the drug report doing so in an attempt to self-medicate various physical and psychological conditions, the most common ones being chronic and acute pain, anxiety, and depression.

Others use it for recreational purposes, including young people under the drinking age and those who have to undergo regular drug testing (i.e., people on probation, active-duty military members) due to the fact that kratom can’t be detected by common drug tests for illicit drugs like cocaine or marijuana.

As the opioid epidemic in the United States continues to rage, an increasingly popular use for kratom is as a supposed treatment for addiction to illicit and prescription opioids. This, however, is a highly controversial subject that relies heavily on anecdotal evidence for support.

Is kratom addictive? Can it be used to treat addiction to opioids?

One of the main reasons users have such difficulty quitting opioids and similar substances is because they fear experiencing withdrawal, leaving them in a constant struggle to prevent the onset of symptoms.

While kratom is often heralded as a treatment for opioid addiction and withdrawal, there’s equal evidence to the contrary – that use leads to or exacerbates physical dependence and psychological addiction and that stopping use of the drug still leads to withdrawal symptoms just like the opioid drugs it’s supposed to treat.

Kratom activates the same receptors in the brain as opioids, triggering feel-good neurochemicals in the brain’s reward center. When this occurs, whether it’s caused by a drug or even by certain behaviors, there is the potential for the brain and the body to become dependent on this interaction and for the person to experience withdrawal symptoms when they discontinue its use.

Kratom withdrawal symptoms

The symptoms of withdrawal for kratom are very similar to withdrawal from opioids, ranging from mild to severe depending on the duration and amount used. In addition to powerful cravings and a compulsion to use, many people experience symptoms such as:

  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweating
  • Irritability
  • Pain and muscle aches
  • High blood pressure
  • Lethargy
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors or other involuntary movements
  • Extreme depression
  • Nervousness, panic, and anxiety
  • Mood swings and crying
  • Delusions
  • Aggressive or psychotic behavior

What are other dangers associated with this substance?

While kratom isn’t associated with slowed respiratory function (the deadliest side effect of traditional opioids), use of the drug comes with other health risks besides just dependence and addiction – and unlike traditional opioids, it hasn’t been the subject of rigorous research, so it isn’t very well understood.

Even though kratom is commercially available in most areas of the United States, there is almost no oversight on the growth, processing, packaging, or labeling of the drug. This limited oversight increases the potential for kratom products to be contaminated with dangerous ingredients and/or pathogens.

In fact, kratom products have been linked to several salmonella outbreaks, one of which led to a mandatory FDA recall after the company failed to cooperate with a voluntary recall. In addition, other psychoactive products have been found in kratom samples, including synthetic cannabinoids and opioids like fentanyl.

Consumption of kratom in conjunction with alcohol or other drugs is particularly dangerous and may lead to severe adverse effects, including liver damage, rapid heartbeat, seizures and even overdose.

Getting help for kratom addiction at Enterhealth

As with opioid drugs like heroin and oxycodone, quitting kratom can be very difficult without help.

Besides the physical symptoms of addiction, the compulsion to use becomes deeply ingrained over time, leading to intense psychological addiction as well. Enterhealth believes the best way to treat kratom addiction is through a combination of therapies that address both.

Through our inpatient and outpatient rehab centers, we offer evidence-based treatment programs that combine advanced medical care (including medically supervised detox) with time-tested psychological and behavioral therapy.

By focusing on the whole person and taking a holistic approach, Enterhealth uniquely tailors treatment plans to each patient’s needs, giving them the best possible chance at a full recovery from substance abuse and addiction.

If you or someone you love needs help, call us today at 800.388.4601 or visit our contact page now.