Mitragyna speciosa or Kratom leaves on wood background

Can Kratom Help Combat the Opioid Crisis in America?

More than 900,000 Americans overdosed on opioid drugs in 2015. The figures for 2017 are expected to be even higher. Some experts are calling it the worst drug epidemic the country has ever seen.  

But is there a natural solution to this growing crisis? Some medical experts think so.

Kratom, a plant native to Southeast Asia, has helped many people overcome withdrawal symptoms and combat chronic pain.

Opioid drugs are commonly prescribed to people suffering with chronic pain, but after a while, the body builds up a tolerance for the medication. Over time, the drug becomes less effective. The solution? Increase the dosage or take several drugs.

Higher dosages and more pills has led to a growing population of people addicted to pain pills. Quitting only causes severe withdrawal symptoms that can be difficult to overcome.

Kratom has long been used by people in Southeast Asia to help prevent withdrawal symptoms from opiates. But it’s also been used to treat pain.

Native to Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, kratom is a tropical evergreen tree. The plant is part of the Rubiaceae family, which also includes gardenia and coffee. Traditionally, the leaves of the plant are boiled into a tea, chewed or smoked. Buyers can also find kratum capsules, which are classified as a supplements and loosely regulated by the FDA.

At low doses, kratom acts as a stimulant. People say they feel more energetic and sociable after taking a lower dose of kratom. At higher doses, it creates feelings of euphoria and helps combat pain.

While the effects are dose-dependent, some people start feeling its effects within ten minutes of consumption. The effects can last up to five hours.

Experts believe the plant’s effects can be attributed to two principal alkaloids: 7-hydroxymitragynine and mitragynine.

Mitragynine is considered a kappa-opioid receptor agonist and is believed to be the reason for the plant’s opioid-like effects. Mitragynine is 13 times more potent than morphine.

If this natural plant is so effective at easing pain and preventing withdrawal symptoms, why isn’t the public more aware of it?

Kratom has been on the DEA’s list of drugs of concern for several years. In 2016, the agency was planning to put the plant on its Schedule I list, the most restrictive class.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says kratom has been linked to 36 deaths, and the agency has seen a tenfold increase in poison control calls related to the substance.

The problem, some experts say, is that kratom is not properly regulated by the FDA and is often laced with other drugs or harmful substances.

Some medical professionals have tested kratom samples used by emergency room patients, and found that the product was laced with other drugs, including morphine and oxycodone.

Kratom also has a reputation for being addictive, and withdrawal symptoms are similar to opioid drugs.

But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. One study presented to the Society of Neuroscience found that mitragynine may have therapeutic effects and isn’t addictive. The other active ingredient, 7-hydroxymitragynine, does have addictive properties and is more potent than morphine. One of the authors of this study, professor Chris McCurdy, has been researching kratom for over a decade.

McCurdy shares the same concerns over safety, and admits that more research needs to be done the determine the true effectiveness of kratom.

Scott Hemby, who researches the abuse potential of drugs, says he has yet to see any data that proves kratom’s active ingredients are addictive.

Can kratom help combat the opioid epidemic in the United States? There’s anecdotal evidence that suggests it can. But the substance needs to be regulated like any other drug to ensure that users aren’t getting a product laced with other drugs.