What Exactly is Kratom?


Like typical opioids, Kratom seems to help relieve pain. And like typical opioids, it can cause euphoric effects at high doses and physical withdrawal symptoms with frequent use.

Most of the side physical effects are caused by two alkaloids, Mytraginine, and 7-Hydroxymitraginine. These molecules bind to opioid receptors which are all over the body and the brain and the muscles, everywhere, though not in the same way that other opioid drugs like heroin, morphine, and fentanyl do. Sometimes described as an atypical opioid. It’s used in parts of Asia for hundreds of years as a mild stimulant.

Over the past 10 years or so, thousands of people have turned to Kratom to help treat opioid dependency, chronic pain, and a host of other conditions when conventional methods have failed.

Specific numbers for Kratom are hard to track down though because medical professionals and public health officials have yet to establish a formal system for tracking it. In fact, the lack of research on Kratom is probably its biggest problem.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the plant and concern over its rapidly growing popularity in the U.S. While the drug is currently legal under federal law, the FDA banned imports starting in 2014 and it’s not approved for any specific use.

So anybody using it for a therapy falls into this regulatory gray area. Schedule 1 of The Controlled Substances Act is the highest level of illegality that indicates that a drug has high abuse potential and no accepted medical value. Schedule 1 includes drugs like DMT, Marijuana, LSD, and Quaaludes just to name a few.

For people for whom legal FDA approved prescription drugs have not been sufficient to improve their quality of life or who simply can’t afford them, Kratom can seem like a really great option as they can now buy bulk Kratom. But its ambiguous legal status makes it hard to figure out the best way for them and people like them to get and use Kratom.

C. Michael White, head of the Department of Pharmacy Practice at the University of Connecticut sees the potential in Kratom, but also acknowledges that there’s a lot we still don’t know about it. He told me in an interview, there’s not a lot of data and the data that we have is mostly anecdotal information. And while there are a lot of compelling stories out there about people who have been helped by Kratom, only properly designed clinical trials will convince medical professionals and the FDA.

In White’s view, this would include studies on how Kratom moves in, around, and out of the body, as well as its interactions with other drugs. If someone is taking Kratom for chronic pain or opioid dependency, it could change the way that their body processes other opioids which could potentially cause harmful effects.

Scientists like White seem to be able to see some middle ground. While the FDA as well as the DEA, which still lists Kratom as a drug of concern, seems hell-bent on their path. It’s entirely possible that the substance could be reclassified as a schedule 1 drug before the proper clinical trials are administered.

If that happens, we may never find out whether Kratom could help us fight the opioid crisis. Federal regulators and grassroots supporters will continue to butt heads over the future of the substance but for now, Kratom’s destiny is unknown.

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