What is Kratom?


This naturally occurring legal substance has caused quite a bit of controversy in recent years among several groups: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), pro-kratom advocacy groups, and the recovery community.

As the drug is easily available in stores and can be ordered via the internet, the FDA wants to classify the substance as a schedule 1 opiate. But advocacy groups claim that the FDA is ignoring its many medicinal benefits, including helping people withdraw from more powerful opioids, such as heroin, with few side effects. And the recovery community are torn as to whether this is a substance that can be used while in recovery — it is often compared to the use of cannabis and CBD.

What is kratom?

Mitragyna speciosa, more commonly referred to as kratom, is a tropical tree originating in Southeast Asia and some parts of Africa. Kratom can be found in various strains, colors, formulations, and doses. In several countries, it has been used for centuries for medicinal and recreational purposes. Some people use kratom to assist the withdrawal symptoms and cravings caused by opioids.

A few of the strains of kratom include Bali Maeng Da, Red Vein Thai, Red Vein Kali, Green Vein Kali, White Vein Kali, White Vein Thai, Super Indo, Ultra Enhanced Maeng Da, Super Green Malaysian, and Full Spectrum Tincture. It is often referred to as biak-biak, ketum, kahuam thom, ithang, or herbal speedball.

In small amounts, it produces mood-uplifting effects and can help to relieve anxiety. It has also been used as a mild aphrodisiac. In larger amounts, kratom has the same effects as opioids: pain relief, sedation, pleasure, and stimulant effects.

How is kratom used?

Kratom is available in various forms: it can be crushed and mixed with water or brewed as a tea, taken in capsule or pill form, or extract.  It is now banned in parts of Southeast Asia as farmers in the plant’s native country chewed the leaves of the plant to provide energy while working in fields.

How does kratom affect the brain?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, kratom contains two compounds, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, that interact with opioid receptors in the brain and produce sedation, pleasure, and decreased pain — especially in large doses. The compound mitragynine can also produce stimulant-type effects of alertness and increased energy when interacting with other receptor systems in the brain.

Despite the claims by the FDA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and though kratom impacts the opioid receptors in the brain, the drug is distinct from classical opioids like morphine, heroin, and oxycodone in terms of how it is made and its effects on the body.

Some scientists claim, “When used as an alternative pain management therapy, kratom provides a far more favorable safety profile for consumers compared to more dangerously addictive and potentially deadly classical opioid medications. Current scientific research suggests that kratom provides some pain relief activity on the pain centers in the brain without the dangerous and potentially deadly respiratory suppression induced by classical opioid medications.”

What are the side effects of taking kratom?

Side effects can include insomnia, vomiting and nausea, seizure, liver damage, itching, sweating, dry mouth, constipation, increased urination, sensitivity to sunburn, and even psychosis. Some have also reported that the substance has addictive properties.

While the FDA claims that there are deadly risks associated with kratom use, citing 44 deaths related to the drug, NIDA states that the deaths were caused by other drugs laced with powerful compounds, such as taking kratom with benzodiazepines, opioids, alcohol, gabapentin, and other illicit drugs.

Is kratom addictive?

According to NIDA, kratom may cause dependence, like other drugs that cause opioid-type effects,. This can lead to symptoms of withdrawal when the person stops taking the drug, including:  

  • muscle aches

  • runny nose

  • aggression

  • insomnia

  • jerky movements

  • emotional changes

  • irritability

Those seeking help for addiction to kratom have sought out various recovery pathways, or other harm reduction strategies.

However, some studies show that the chemicals in kratom carry little risk of addiction, and were not abused by rats.

Is kratom legal?

Kratom is legal in most states, with the exception of Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Washington. It is illegal in the UK, Thailand, and Malaysia, and is a controlled substance in parts of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Despite FDA warnings, the USDA has not prohibited the substance, but advise athletes to “steer clear of  kratom for health reasons.”

The latest information about kratom

Key facts in the controversy surrounding kratom:

  • 2012: The FDA introduced an import alert on kratom, which was later withdrawn as they are required to prove that it was dangerous or that it was being marketed for medical purposes.

  • 2014: The FDA labeled kratom as a suspicious substance, banning its import into the U.S. and seizing several thousand pounds

  • 2016: The DEA announced a temporary federal ban under the Controlled Substances Act, but later withdrew the policy following pressure from advocacy groups, stating that they needed to undertake further research.

  • 2018: The FDA issued a statement claiming kratom had “opioid properties” and was associated with 44 deaths. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced he wanted kratom banned and scheduled as a class 1 drug.

Later in 2018, nine scientists specializing in substance addiction sent a letter to DEA Administrator Robert Patterson and the head of the White House opioid crisis team, Kellyanne Conway, challenging the FDA’s recommendations. They stated that “a body of credible research on the actual effects of kratom demonstrates that it is not dangerously addictive, nor is it similar to ‘narcotics like opioids’ with respect to ‘addiction’ and ‘death’ as stated by the FDA.” They reminded officials that the deaths the FDA claims were caused by kratom were actually associated with the use of other illicit and/or dangerous substances, and that this was not a sufficient reason to classify kratom.

Right now, kratom is a “drug of concern” by the DEA, but no decision has yet been made about its scheduling.

Can you take kratom if you’re in recovery?

As with all decisions in recovery, the choice is yours. This blog is not intended to be taken as medical advice — it simply provides information about kratom.

That said, some people in recovery choose to adopt harm reduction strategies, some are sober and use CBD, and others choose to refrain from any mood-altering substance including non-mood altering CBD. Ultimately, the decision is yours. As with anything recovery, it’s worth consulting with a therapist, doctor, mentor, or sponsor.

Olivia Pennelle