Kratom is poised to become the next party drug crave. But what is it, and is it really dangerous? Find out in this brief expose, where we explore this plant extract in detail. You’ll learn all about its addictive potential, what the FDA thinks about it, and whether it’s been implicated in any overdose deaths. Read on.
What is Kratom?
Kratom is a member of the Rubiaceae family, the same plant lineage to which coffee belongs. But unlike coffee, which involves the cultivation and roasting of coffee beans, kratom is made from the leaves of the mitraganya tree. This tree is native to the Southeast region of Asia. Consequently, the stimulant was historically popular in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. However, the tree has been spotted growing in certain areas of the U.S., where its leaves are cultivated and sold.
Kratom goes by many street names:
- Herbal speedball
- Maeng Da
Like cocaine before it, kratom has a long history of use by indigenous people. When the leaves are chewed, the drug’s active ingredient is released into the body slowly. This is known to increase work efficiency and lessen fatigue in a manner similar to caffeine. It’s important to note, however, that there is a big difference between absorbing a small amount of the active ingredient via the mouth and taking a concentrate in pill, powder or liquid form.
When you take a kratom pill, the active ingredient gets into your system much faster, and it has more dramatic effects.
Indigenous people also brewed kratom leaves into a potent tea, and they used this brew to treat a number of conditions, including diabetes, fever, diarrhea and pain relief. However, there are no studies indicating that the compound is an effective treatment for these conditions.
The possible exception is as a pain reliever, though research into this is ongoing. It is true, however, that the drug is popular in Malaysia and surrounding areas as an alternative to opioids. As a drug of abuse in Asia, kratom is often mixed with cough syrup, Coca-Cola and ice. The mixture is referred to as ‘4×100,’ and it is proving a scourge in Thai villages.
The drug’s first use in the U.S. is not known. However, there are reports of kratom being used by Americans as a treatment for opioid withdrawal going back to the early 2000s.
Since then, the CDC has noted an uptick in Poison Control Center calls involving the compound. Furthermore, the FDA, in February 2019, released a statement recommending that the compound should be placed on the list of Schedule 1 drugs.
The active compounds in kratom are 7-hydroxymitragynine and mitragynine. Both of these molecules are alkaloids—organic plant compounds that have physiological effects in humans. Research into kratom concentrate revealed that these alkaloids act as partial μ-opioid receptor agonists. This could indicate that kratom may one day have a legitimate role to play in pain relief or opioid withdrawal symptom management. However, this remains to be seen.
The drug contains other alkaloids too, and these compete with the two mentioned above. Consequently, it’s not clear how effective the entire extract is as a pain reliever. If pharmaceutical companies did want to pursue the compound as a pain reliever, they would likely seek to isolate 7-hydroxymitragynine and mitragynine, eliminating or reducing their reliance on the natural plant source.
What is clear is that the compound is a potent stimulant. Stimulants have addictive potential.
Kratom is typically consumed orally. In the U.S., it is widely available as a powder, a tablet or even as raw leaves. It also comes as an extract in liquid form. Dose ranges wildly based on method of consumption. Because the drug is so widely available, and in so many forms, users must be careful in how they take the drug. For instance, a person who usually takes kratom tablets may buy liquid concentrate instead. But they likely won’t know how much of the liquid to take to achieve the desired effect.
As a powder, most manufacturers recommend a dose of three to five grams. Concentrated liquid extracts, however, typically only require one to two drops. A consumer accustomed to taking several grams of powder may mistakenly assume that an equivalent dose is required when using the liquid form. This opens up the possibility of overdose.
Some people use the drug several times throughout the day to achieve a continuous stimulation effect. It’s somewhat troubling, however, that cocaine users often exhibit this same behavior as addiction takes hold. It’s common to use kratom in conjunction with caffeine. This can have undesirable side effects at high doses, such as jitters or even paranoia.
Pure kratom products typically contain two percent 7-hydroxymitragynine and no more than sixty six percent mitragynine.
However, kratom produced for U.S. markets may be contaminated with synthetic compounds. These compounds are common in the manufacture of illicit drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin. Therefore, if the compound proves to have addictive potential, the possibility that it may be adulterated with synthetic drugs like fentanyl, hydrocodone and O-desmethyltramadol is of grave concern.
Fentanyl, in particular, can be devastating. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than morphine. Accidental exposure to this synthetic drug can result in death. The possibility of fentanyl contamination greatly increases the danger of accidental overdose.
Perhaps equally concerning is the fact that kratom is easily available in the U.S. and other countries. In fact, the compound is commonly stocked in in gas stations, where it’s advertised as a stimulant. Below is a list of the most common uses for the drug in the U.S.
- As a stimulant
- As a mood booster
- To produce an altered state of consciousness, or high
- To relieve pain
- To reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms
As mentioned, the drug’s efficacy as a pain reliever has not been verified by researchers. Nor is it used in a clinical setting to reduce opioid symptoms.
The compound is often used in conjunction with other drugs such as:
According to STRIDE, a federal database that tracks any and all compounds seized in drug raids, kratom use is on the rise. There were 44 such reports in 2010, but there were 81 reports mentioning the compound in 2012. The fact that drug dealers are being caught with the drug is particularly troubling. It implies that they may be experimenting with making the compound more addictive by mixing it with small amounts of the aforementioned fentanyl, which is itself incredibly addictive.
Without a doubt, any kratom you buy off the street could be laced with extremely addictive compounds, such as opioids or cocaine. But according to this case study, the compound may be addictive all on its own. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as some people can get quite hooked on caffeine. In the case study, the subject—a 37 year old schoolteacher—indicated that she started taking the drug after being told that it would work as a pain reliever. Two years later, she found herself admitted to an inpatient mental health and addiction service unit for a self-described ‘kratom addiction.’ According to the subject, she noticed that she had to take more of the drug to get the same effects.
Having to take more of a drug over time is known as tolerance, and it’s one of the hallmarks of addiction.
When she attempted to curb her consumption of the drug, she began experiencing intense cravings. Chemical dependence, a state in which the brain begins to consider a foreign substance essential, is another trait of addiction. Finally, the patient claims to have experienced intense withdrawal symptoms when she stopped using kratom, including:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Blurred vision
Over a year and a half, the patient attempted to detox without success. At the same time, her husband reported that she had continued to use the drug, often hiding bottles around the home. Making several attempts to quit, and lying to loved ones are also potential signs of addiction.
Granted, this is only one case study. But recall that in Asia, the drug is well known for its addictive potential. This points to another disturbing possibility: that the drug may also act as a gateway to more addictive drugs.
A percentage of people who are attracted to kratom for its stimulant effect may graduate to cocaine use. Likewise, people who use it as a mood booster may be tempted to try heroin.
In Thailand, where the drug is common, one in five teenagers struggle with addiction. Yet in the U.S., it’s for sale in gas stations. This makes it a contender to become a popular party drug, joining the ranks of alcohol and marijuana. While teens may struggle to acquire alcohol and must worry about the strong odor of marijuana, they have little trouble buying kratom—a drug that could be laced with dangerous synthetic compounds because of poor oversight of the facilities where the drug is produced.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists no approved uses for kratom.
Between the years 2011-2017, the national poison center documented over 1800 calls reporting kratom exposure. What’s more, between the years 2016 and 2017, The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention—CDC—recorded 152 overdose deaths in which kratom was present in the victim’s system.
How to Know If You Might Have a Problem
It can be tricky to self-assess for addiction. But there are a few signs you can watch for. The main question is this: do you find yourself taking more and more kratom to get the same old high? If so, you may be developing tolerance. The brain builds tolerance to a drug so that it can become less sensitive to its effects.
Neurotransmitters play a vital role in normal brain function. Drugs that force the release of certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, interfere with brain function. If you continue to use the drug recreationally after the onset of tolerance, you’re likely to develop chemical dependence. At this point, the brain begins to rely on the drug for neurotransmitter release, and you’ll get withdrawal symptoms if you cut back. There are several behavioral and psychological signs that these neurological changes are taking place. If you see these in yourself, seek help now.
This is how you interact with other people, and how the side effects of drug use affect your behavior.
- Obsessive thoughts. You think about kratom often, and you worry when your stock gets low. Using the drug and acquiring more of it becomes a recurrent theme in your life.
- You cut ties with non-users. You begin to minimize relationships with people who don’t use the drug, and you might strike up friendships with people who do.
- You can’t stop, even though you want to. You want to cut back or stop completely, but you fail each time you try.
- You hide your drug use. You take kratom alone and hide your supply from other people.
- You ignore side effects. The drug causes harm to your brain or body, but you still use.
- You spend more money than you meant to. Kratom started out as a small expense, but now you spend hundreds of dollars per month on more potent formulations.
- You skip school or work. You’ve started to disregard other obligations so you can get high.
Of course, different drugs will have different effects on the body. But there are broad list of possible side effects that applies to many of them.
- Enlarged or very small pupils
- Bloodshot eyes
- Sudden weight loss or weight gain
- Impaired physical coordination
- Poor hygiene
- Slurred speech
If you see any of these symptoms in yourself, don’t wait, get help today. An accredited rehabilitation facility can help you overcome addiction. Trained professionals can help you through the detox process. Addiction counselors can teach you powerful coping mechanisms like cognitive behavioral therapy. Equipped with these techniques, you can learn to manage disruptive thoughts that trigger use.
It is definitely possible to overcome kratom addiction, but you must take the first step.
If you’re trying to get addiction treatment for yourself or for someone you love when it comes to using kratom, reach out to The Hills for comprehensive and caring treatment that will help patients detox and learn the skills to cope with their triggers and their addiction.
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