Kratom: What is it, and Why is it Dangerous?

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Kratom: What is it, and Why is it Dangerous?

Kratom is a tree that grows naturally in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and other South Asian countries. For decades, the Kratom tree leaves have been used for medicinal purposes by island natives with little to no governmental oversight or control. The effects of Kratom, a tropical tree that is part of the coffee family, range from stimulant-like (energizing and uplifting) to opiate-like (drowsiness and euphoric). Kratom is currently not an illegal substance and remains relatively easy to obtain online. However, due to the highly addictive nature of the drug, there are questions about whether it will soon be classified as a controlled substance in the United States.

What is Kratom?

The leaves (or extracts from the leaves) of the Kratom tree have been used as a stimulant and a sedative, depending on the user’s individual needs. Some reports also indicate Kratom is useful for treating chronic pain, digestive ailments and as an aid for those detoxing from opioid drugs. Currently, few clinical studies have been conducted to help understand the health effects of Kratom. Also, it has not been approved for medical use in the United States.


Fresh Kratom leaves can be chewed or once dried; the leaves can be swallowed or brewed into a tea or coffee. Extracts from the leaves can also be used to make liquid products often marketed as “treatments” for muscle pain, appetite suppressants, a cramp relieving aid, and antidiarrheal. It is also sold as a treatment for panic attacks.


In the United States (and other countries globally), Kratom is frequently used as a recreational drug. Many believe that because Kratom is plant-based and naturally derived that it is safe to use. However, the active ingredients in the Kratom leaves can vary widely from plant to plant, making it difficult to determine the exact dose one is taking when they use the product. Depending on the strength of the plant and the user’s health, Kratom can be very dangerous.

Kratom is thought to act on the opioid receptors in the brain, similar to opioid drugs or those used to help alleviate withdrawal symptoms. At low doses, it acts as a stimulant and at higher doses as a sedative. Some people use Kratom to ease withdrawal symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal because it is easier to obtain than prescription drugs. Some of these individuals may have completed an addiction treatment program at The Hills or have tried to “cold turkey” opioid withdrawal and experienced relapse. Kratom is also used as a muscle relaxant, anti-inflammatory, and pain reliever.


In the United States, Kratom is usually marketed as alternative medicine. It is found either online or in stores that sell supplements and alternative medicines. Today, Kratom remains legal in the united states, although its safety and efficacy as a supplemental treatment remain highly questionable. In Thailand, Australia, Malaysia, and several countries in the European Union, it is considered a controlled substance similar to heroin or other opioids.

What are the Side Effects of Kratom?

The effects of Kratom are confusing to understand as, depending on the dosing, the drug can act in different ways on the user. This unpredictable effect is part of what makes using Kratom particularly dangerous, especially when missed with other drugs that share similar effects.

Stimulant Effects

A small dose of Kratom (just a few grams) is known to produce stimulant effects. The effects are usually felt within five to ten minutes and can last up to ninety minutes. These effects are similar to other stimulant drugs and include increased alertness, excessive happiness, reduced motor coordination, and increased sociability.

Sedative Effects

In larger doses, between ten and twenty-five grams, Kratom acts as a sedative. Instead of increased energy levels and other stimulant-type effects, the user experiences feelings of intense calm and euphoria.  The time it takes for these feelings to take effect remains the same; however, larger doses typically stay in the body for longer, in some cases, up to six hours. Very high doses of Kratom can put the user to sleep and possibly induce hallucinations or a “dreamlike” state.


Aside from dose-specific effects, using Kratom also has various side effects. As with many drugs, the severity or occurrence of side effects will vary from person to person. The most common effects are nausea and constipation; however, other effects can include itching, dizziness, appetite changes, sweating, dry mouth, seizures, liver damage, hallucinations, and psychosis. Kratom use can also impact the nervous system affecting essential body functions such as respiratory rate. Due to limited research, it is unknown exactly what level of Kratom is considered toxic in humans. However, it is possible to become addicted and/or overdose on Kratom.

Is Kratom Safe?

Each year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention poison centers receive numerous calls for Kratom overdose. Between 2011 and 2017, the CDC received approximately 1800 reports involving Kratom use, including reports involving overdose and death.  At one time, it was believed that Kratom might be a safe alternative to opioids and other prescription pain medications; however, the effects of Kratom have identified many safety concerns and no clear (evidence-backed) benefits. Again, there have been few studies around the efficacy of Kratom as a prescription medication. A small study used to test Kratom as a treatment for opioid withdrawal symptom mitigation indicated participants who took Kratom for more than six months reported withdrawal symptoms similar to those of opioid withdrawal. Those who use Kratom can also develop cravings and withdrawal symptoms, eventually requiring addiction treatment at a treatment center like The Hills, where medically assisted detox is available.

It is also believed that some Kratom products may contain salmonella bacteria. As of 2018, more than 130 people in 38 different states became ill with salmonella after taking Kratom. The United States Food and Drug Administration has linked more than 35 deaths to salmonella-tainted kratom products.  Because the production of Kratom is not regulated and the safety and purity of the herbs are not monitored, it is impossible to know if the product is contaminated with salmonella or other contaminants.

Is Kratom Addictive?

Like other drugs producing opioid-like effects, Kratom use can lead to dependence. Someone becomes dependent on Kratom (or other substances) when they experience physical withdrawal symptoms upon reducing or stopping the use of the drug. Some users who have become addicted to Kratom report withdrawal symptoms, including muscle aches, mood changes (irritability, aggression, and hostility), runny nose, and jerky movements or tremors. Because Kratom acts on opioid receptors in the brain in similar ways to other opioid drugs, it is believed Kratom has the same addictive potential as other drugs classified as opioids.

Can Someone Overdose on Kratom?

Data released by the National Poison Data System found that between 2011 and 2018, there were eleven deaths associated with exposure to Kratom. Although this number seems low when compared to other overdose statistics, it is assumed that the data is highly underreported as Kratom use and overdose are not monitored in the same way as other prescription or illicit drugs. In 2017 another 44 deaths related to Kratom use (were reported by the Federal Food and Drug Administration. In these cases, the Federal Food and Drug Administration notes that “many of the kratom-associated deaths appeared to have resulted from adulterated products or taking kratom with other potent substances, including illicit drugs, opioids, benzodiazepines, alcohol, gabapentin, and over-the-counter medications, such as cough syrup.” Therefore, it is hard to determine if the overdose death was related to Kratom or the effects of Kratom magnified by the impact of other similar acting substances.

How is an Addiction to Kratom Treated?

Currently, there are no specific medical or behavioral treatments for Kratom addiction. However, because Kratom produces effects similar to other opioid drugs, some have found success with behavioral treatments similar to those used in opioid addiction treatment in addiction rehab centers like The Hills. Examples of such treatments include medically assisted detox followed by behavioral therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy. Although these may be successful for some, it is important to remember that addiction affects everyone differently. There is still a lot to research and understand how Kratom works within the body to produce effects. Therefore, what may work for one person seeking treatment for Kratom addiction, may not be suitable for someone else.


For this reason, it is essential to ensure any addiction treatment program is uniquely designed around the individual’s treatment need and goals, not just the addiction itself. This is especially true in the case of a drug like Kratom. There is so much left to learn about its effects, as well as short- and long-term recovery successes and relapse statistics. A better understanding of these vital statistics can help members of addiction treatment teams better design addiction treatment plans for those struggling with a Kratom addiction.


In recent years, people have started using Kratom as both a recreational drug and an herbal alternative to medical treatment for withdrawal symptoms and cravings related to opioid and alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, little research is available to verify whether Kratom is effective or safe for this purpose. Significant further research is needed around Kratom and its efficacy as a medical intervention. Although Kratom remains legal in the United States, the Federal Food and Drug Administration has considered (as recently as 2016) classifying Kratom as a schedule II-controlled substance in line with the actions of other countries. Because of how Kratom acts on opioid receptors in the body, it produces a similar and equally addictive effect to opioids such as heroin and other prescription pain killers. The addictive potential for the drug can make it difficult and potentially dangerous to detox from without comprehensive treatment and support. If you or a loved one are struggling with a Kratom addiction or would like to learn more about what an addiction to Kratom may look like, reach out to the admissions team at The Hills in Los Angeles today.


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