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What Is Kratom?
Kratom (mitragyna speciosa) is a plant native to Southeast Asia and has been used from Malaysia to Thailand for hundreds of years.
In low doses, kratom is known for its energizing, stimulant effects and its potential pain management benefits. In higher doses, kratom has a sedative effect.
Sold as a dietary supplement in the United States, kratom is legal on a federal level as of 2023. However, more localized governments (including states and counties) have criminalized kratom due to concerns about the use of kratom and its overall safety.
Currently, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has not categorized kratom as a controlled substance. Rather, it is currently categorized as a “drug of concern.”
How Common Is Kratom?
Kratom has gained significant popularity in the United States over the last decade, with the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use reporting about 1.7 million Americans using kratom in the last year.
The most common kratom products include:
- Tea (using either whole or ground leaves)
- Kratom capsules
- Kratom extract
- Concentrated kratom shots
- Kratom gummies
Why Do People Use Kratom?
Kratom users cite a variety of reasons why they take this drug, including:
- Pain relief
- Managing mental health conditions (as a replacement for antidepressants)
- Reducing opiate withdrawal symptoms
- Reducing cravings while recovering from drug addiction
However, additional research and ongoing case reports suggest that kratom ingestion may still be dangerous.
Kratom & Sober Culture
Over the years, sober culture has embraced kratom because of the substance’s perceived status as an addiction-free dietary supplement and alternative to dangerous opioids. Kratom bars often pop up in cities as an alternative to bar culture and promote healthy, sober living instead.
Unfortunately, the strong beliefs surrounding kratom’s supposed benefits as a supplement prevents people from viewing the substance critically.
By making kratom a component of sober living, many people overlook the risks and find themselves dependent or addicted to kratom before they realize it.
Effects of Kratom Use
Like any drug, the side effects of using kratom will vary from person to person.
Research shows that kratom has a high risk of leading to physical dependence and addiction, especially when taken in larger doses or for a prolonged period.
Additional side effects of kratom use may include:
- Rapid heart rate
- Increased energy
- Difficulty sleeping
- Hair loss
- Tremors or jerky movements
- Weight loss
- High blood pressure
- Marked drowsiness or fatigue (especially when taken in high doses)
- Dry mouth
- Frequent urination
- Loss of appetite
- Gastrointestinal issues, including upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting
Kratom users may require hospitalization for some of the more severe side effects of kratom use. Furthermore, combining other drug abuse with kratom can lead to more dangerous side effects and even death.
How Does Kratom Work?
The active ingredient in kratom (mitragynine, which becomes 7-hydroxymitragynine in the body) stimulates the brain’s opioid receptors.
Consuming kratom essentially activates this pleasure center in your brain, similar to how typical opiates affect your brain.
Kratom users often experience a sense of euphoria along with potentially stimulating effects (e.g., feeling talkative, energetic, or productive) for low doses and sedative effects (e.g., relaxation, drowsiness) when taken in higher amounts.
Research had previously indicated that, unlike traditional opiates, kratom may not bind to brain receptors. However, this result is not exactly true. Whether kratom binds to brain receptors—and which receptors it may bind to—is still being actively studied.
Is Kratom Safe to Use?
The safety of kratom use is currently up for debate. We simply don’t have enough information one way or another to determine whether kratom is officially “safe” or “unsafe.”
The DEA lists kratom as a “substance or drug of concern,” suggesting that kratom use is at least potentially risky.
Kratom is still relatively new to the United States, and generally speaking, not much is known about the short- and long-term effects of kratom on users.
Kratom is not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means it does not necessarily meet certain health and safety standards before it goes into distribution.
This lack of FDA oversight also means that any batch of kratom could contain other substances, including other drugs cut into the kratom powder to increase its potency.
Why Is Kratom Addiction So Controversial?
Because research into the effects of kratom is still relatively new, there is a lot of information (and misinformation) circulating about this popular herbal substance.
Unfortunately, early research suggested that users could not develop a dependence on kratom due to how it interacts with the brain, with many supporters claiming that “kratom doesn’t bind to the brain’s opioid receptors,” unlike heroin and other true opiates. However, this isn’t necessarily true.
Scientists are still investigating how kratom binds to the brain’s serotonin, dopamine, and adrenergic receptors. Therefore, any claims that kratom cannot lead to addiction are based on incomplete research.
The Argument for Kratom Use
Some pro-kratom users claim it helps them manage chronic pain, suggesting that it is a better alternative to “harder” opiates like oxycodone or hydrocodone.
Other kratom users report that kratom helped them successfully overcome drug addiction (namely, opioid addiction) and resist cravings even months after quitting their drug use.
However, others argue that we do not know enough about kratom to determine whether its potential benefits are worth the risks.
The Argument Against Kratom Use
While some users claim kratom has helped them manage pain or handle opiate addiction, other kratom users have experienced intense side effects (tremors, anorexia, hallucinations, and seizures) even after short-term use.
Additionally, many former kratom users report developing a physical dependence on kratom rather quickly and cite severe withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit.
In fact, some former kratom users report needing medication-assisted treatment to deal with the intense cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Ultimately, research into kratom’s potential benefits and dangers is ongoing.
Signs of Kratom Dependence and Addiction
Kratom dependence and kratom addiction are two different things, though physical dependence usually leads to addiction.
When someone uses kratom long enough for their body to get used to the regular stream of dopamine and serotonin, it creates, they develop physical dependence.
Physical dependence is what it sounds like their body has become physically dependent on kratom to function properly.
Likewise, individuals who have become physically dependent on kratom and suddenly stop using it will often experience withdrawal symptoms. Kratom withdrawals are very similar to the symptoms of opioid withdrawal.
Kratom withdrawal symptoms include:
- Trouble sleeping
- General unease, including restless leg syndrome (RLS)
- Muscle pain
- Joint pain or stiffness
- Mood swings, especially irritability
- Runny nose
- Body aches
Addiction happens when a person becomes obsessed with using a substance—in this case, kratom use. Casual use of kratom will usually turn into kratom abuse as the person needs more of this drug to feel the same effects.
More research is still needed to determine exactly how kratom addiction compares to other substance use disorders.
A person that is experiencing kratom addiction may exhibit the following behaviors:
- Inability to control how much kratom they take
- Needing to take more kratom in order to feel the same effects (i.e., tolerance)
- Wanting to decrease or stop using kratom but being unable to
- Decreased productivity at work or home
- Losing interest in other hobbies in favor of using kratom
- Continuing to use kratom in spite of any negative impacts on one’s life
Kratom Addiction Treatment
If you or a loved one has found themselves addicted to kratom or unsure how to safely quit using this drug, the good news is that treatment programs can help you.
Individuals who receive assistance with kratom withdrawal may receive a prescription for medication that can help make the withdrawal symptoms less uncomfortable. The most common prescription used to combat kratom withdrawal symptoms is buprenorphine.
Another plus is that, while uncomfortable, kratom withdrawals are not usually life-threatening, so detox and treatment can usually happen at an outpatient level. Outpatient treatment services mean you won’t need to stay at a treatment center during detox.
However, you may decide that you want to seek additional coaching and addiction treatment after the detox phase to help you continue to abstain from kratom in the future.
If that’s the case, speak to your area’s primary healthcare provider or an addiction specialist to find addiction programs (inpatient and outpatient) nearby.
Get Help for Kratom Addiction
If you are concerned that your kratom use may have become an addiction, you can connect with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) folks through their free helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or via their website at findtreatment.gov. They can help you locate an addiction counselor, physician, and/or treatment program near you.
Alternatively, you can talk to your doctor about how to approach quitting kratom and find out whether you should consider medication-assisted treatment during the detox phase.
Whatever you choose, just know that this discomfort is temporary, but the freedom you’ll feel afterward is lasting!
FAQs About Kratom
What is kratom?
Kratom is an herbal substance that was popularized in Southeast Asia. It is best known for its opiate-like effects, including pain relief. Individuals may use kratom to feel relaxed, manage chronic pain, gain energy, or combat certain side effects of opiate withdrawal.
However, much research is still needed about kratom’s short- and long-term effects, including its potential for addiction and dependence.
Is kratom legal?
Yes and no. Kratom is legal at the federal level. However, local legislators have outlawed kratom in different cities and counties in the United States.
Is kratom addictive?
Yes, kratom has the potential to lead to addiction. This topic is hotly debated because of how kratom interacts with the brain slightly differently than traditional opiates and research into the effects of kratom on the brain is ongoing.
However, like any substance that can shift the brain’s chemicals, kratom has the potential for abuse, physical dependency, and addiction.
What are the symptoms of kratom addiction?
Signs that someone is addicted to kratom will likely show up in their behavior as they become obsessed with acquiring, using, and/or recovering from kratom.
Someone addicted to kratom will go to great lengths to acquire kratom or continue using it, even if it has started causing negative effects on their health, finances, relationships, or overall well-being.
Is kratom an opiate?
Kratom is not considered an official opiate. However, it is well-known for its opioid-like effects, especially when consumed in large amounts, including sedation, pain relief, and feelings of euphoria.