“It’s a fascinating drug, but we need to know a lot more about it. Recreationally or to self-treat opioid dependence, BEWARE – potentially, you’re at just as much risk (as with an opiate).” ~ Dr. Edward Boyer, Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School Every few years, the newest miracle herbal supplement hits the market, making all sorts of scientifically unsupported claims – “lose weight”, “stop aging”, “cure depression”, etc. In reality, most of these new panaceas of the modern-day equivalent of snake oil, good for little more than fleecing the American public out of an estimated $21 BILLION annually. Right now, herbal supplements and vitamins make up 5% of ALL grocery sales in America, and if we add in protein powders, supplements account for as much business as all other organic foods combined. Synthetic, so-called “designer” drugs fall into a similar category, although they are by no means healthy. Marketed online as “safe, legal, all-natural” highs and sold surreptitiously in truck stops and head shops as other innocuous products such as potpourri or air fresheners, these imports from foreign drug manufacturers stay one step ahead of American law by constantly adjusting their formulas to circumvent existing legislature. Now there is a supplement that falls into both groups—Kratom. As a recreational supplement, Kratom is sold online as a safe and legal alternative to both methamphetamines (at low doses) and opiates (at higher doses). As an herbal health supplement, supporters are touting Kratom as a boon that can potentially help abusers of alcohol and other, more powerful opiates such as heroin or prescription painkillers kick the habit without the harshly-unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. The Drug Enforcement Agency, on the other hand, calls Kratom a “drug of concern” and says that it has “no medicinal value”. Currently, Kratom is not scheduled by the federal government as a controlled substance, but individual states – six, so far – have begun to ban its use and possession. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration directed that any imported shipments of Kratom should be seized over worries that no evidence exists that Kratom does not pose a risk of injury or illness. So what’s the REAL story?
What You to Need to Know About Kratom
Kratom is a plant– scientific name mitragyna speciosa–native to Malaysia and Thailand. In Southeast Asia, Kratom has been used in herbal folk medicine for centuries, where the leaves are either chewed while fresh, or dried, ground into a powder, and mixed with tea. In traditional medicine, Kratom supposedly has a number of medicinal uses, including:
- As an antidiarrheal
- For opiate addiction
- To aid in premature ejaculation
- For fibromyalgia
- To treat restless leg syndrome
- To ease arthritis
- To help with opioid withdrawal
Despite this, Kratom is illegal in both Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Australia, and punishable by up to four years in prison. Thailand has gone so far as to conduct eradication programs that destroy large sections of Kratom forests. In the United States, more and more users are reading about Kratom online and many have begun switching to Kratom as a substitute for their prescription painkillers that are now harder to obtain, thanks to the DEA and state boards of pharmacy. There is evidence to suggest that Kratom can blunt the difficulties of opioid withdrawal extremely well, but that evidence is chiefly anecdotal by people who administer self-treatment. Dr. Boyer, who cautiously advocates more research and safeguards, says this of Kratom’s potential multiple uses – “So if you want to treat depression if you want to treat opioid pain, if you want to treat sleeplessness, this [compound] really puts it all together.” As a general rule, most physicians are unfamiliar with any legitimate applications, and science as to Kratom’s pharmacology is lacking – its metabolic half-life, the way it binds to proteins, and how it is eliminated from the body are all unknown.
How Effective Is Kratom at Treating Opioid Withdrawal?
Although Kratom is not an opioid, it binds to receptors in the brain the same way that actual opioids and opiates do. This explains why it is popular as a “natural” alternative to medically-supervised opioid replacement therapy. A study conducted by Dr. Boyer and other colleagues and published in the June 2008 issue of Addiction describes the “striking finding” that although withdrawal from typical opioids can be severe, cessation of Kratom results in modest symptoms. Most opioid overdose deaths are due to respiratory depression – drugs like heroin, fentanyl, or Percocet can slow a person’s breathing rate to zero. But it’s different with Kratom. “In animal studies where rats were given (Kratom), those rats had no respiratory depression. This opens the possibility of someday developing a pain medication as effective as morphine, but without the risk of accidentally overdosing and dying.”
What Dangers Are Associated with Kratom Use?
In June 2015, the FDA declared that the consumption of Kratom can lead to “a number of health impacts”, including:
- Severe withdrawal signs and symptoms
- Skin hyperpigmentation
- Loss of libido
- Respiratory Depression
At best, the available information on Kratom seems to be both minimal and contradictory. With that in mind, any person considering using a Kratom supplement to self-treat their withdrawal from opioids or alcohol should do so with extreme caution and awareness that they are taking an almost completely unregulated substance for supposed benefits that are not yet supported by accepted medical science. Dr. Boyer admits that Kratom seems to be potentially addictive and that because of the poor understanding of its pharmacology, a great deal of further study is needed. “You put the proper safeguards in place and hope that people won’t abuse a substance. Speaking as a scientist, a physician, and a practicing clinician, I think the fears of adverse events don’t mean you stop the scientific discovery process totally.” The best treatment for substance abuse disorders remains medically-supervised, evidence-based therapy. This is exactly the sort of treatment offered at Northpoint Recovery in Boise, Idaho. Northpoint uses a multiple-tiered approach to recovery that addresses the disease of addiction on multiple levels. Clients work on regaining their sobriety in a safe and therapeutic residential setting while receiving round-the-clock nursing care. Although located in Idaho, Northpoint offers services to clients throughout the Treasure Valley and in neighboring Pacific Northwest states, including Washington State, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana.