Understanding Kratom Abuse: Risks, Addiction, and Treatment Options

Written By

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

On November 13, 2023

What you will learn

  • Kratom is an herbal extract from the leaves of a tropical tree in Southeast Asia.
  • Mitragynine is the active compound that produces opioid-like effects.
  • Kratom has been used in traditional Asian medicine for decades but gained popularity as a remedy or recreational drug in the US.
  • Several reports have been linked to serious side effects, or even death, from consuming kratom products.
  • Though legal on the federal level, regulatory bodies are keeping a close watch on kratom as the situation develops.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Kratom has been showing up everywhere from vitamin stores to farmers markets. It’s often sold as an energy booster, pain reliever, or other miracle supplement based on traditional Asian medicine, but the reality is more complicated.

While kratom has been used for medicinal purposes in its native Southeast Asia, its medicinal properties have not been well researched, nor have its potential risks. Learn more about kratom, its uses, and the possible dangers.

What Is Kratom?

Kratom is an herbal extract from the leaves of a tropical tree (Mitragyna speciosa) that’s native to Southeast Asia. Its leaves contain a chemical called mitragynine, which produces effects similar to opioids like morphine or heroin.[1] People often use kratom as a “safe” alternative to opioid painkillers, despite serious side effects.

There are several phytochemicals present in kratom that have different pharmacological and toxicological properties. The primary components are mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, which are only found in Mitragyna speciosa.[2]

History of Kratom

Grown in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and other parts of Southeast Asia, Kratom has been used as an herbal remedy in the region for decades. Traditionally, it was used as a stimulant by laborers to manage their hard work and relieve muscle pain. It was also used as a substitute for opium if none was available or as a treatment option for morphine dependence.[3]

In Thailand, the Kratom Act 2486 made planting kratom trees illegal in 1943, The government enacted the Narcotics Act B.E. 2522 in 1979, placing kratom alongside marijuana in Category V of the narcotics classifications.[4] It was since updated in 2021 and removed from the narcotics list.

Kratom has been growing in popularity in recent years on the recreational drug market. While there is no legitimate medical use for kratom in the US, it’s often used as a natural remedy or a legal psychoactive product.

There are no approved uses for kratom from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Kratom products are currently legal and accessible, and not listed in the Controlled Substances Act.

How Is Kratom Used?

Kratom can be used in many different forms. People may chew the leaves, brew them into tea, or swallow them dry. Kratom extract may be used to make the product in liquid form, which may be sold as a treatment for cramps, muscle pain, or food cravings. It also comes in tablet and capsule form.

In Asian traditional medicine, kratom is a substitute for opium. It’s believed to act on opioid receptors, and at low doses, may act as a stimulant. With higher doses, kratom may relieve pain and bring on a euphoric feeling. People commonly use kratom as a remedy for withdrawal from morphine, heroin, and other opioid drugs.

Recreationally, kratom may be used at parties or social settings. People may use it to relieve feelings of social anxiety or to get high, partly because it’s considered “natural and safe” as a plant-based substance.

What Are the Risks and Side Effects of Kratom?

People who take kratom swear by its benefits, but it comes with significant side effects and risks. The active ingredients in kratom plants can vary significantly, making it difficult to ensure an appropriate dose.

The effects begin about five to 10 minutes after ingestion and last about two to five hours. The more kratom ingested, the stronger the effects.

There are several possible side effects, including:[5]

  • Dry mouth
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in urine output
  • Chills, nausea, and vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Muscle pain
  • Liver damage
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Depressed breathing
  • Seizures

In severe cases, kratom may lead to coma and death. But because kratom is a natural substance that can’t be dosed carefully, it’s difficult to determine the level of kratom that’s toxic in people.

Kratom use has been associated with several cases of overdoses and fatalities, but it’s often a result of contaminated products or an unsafe mixture of different drugs.

Potential for Addiction and Kratom Abuse

Because kratom acts on opioid receptors, it’s possible for those who use kratom regularly to become dependent as the body adapts to regular exposure. When they stop, they’ll have withdrawal symptoms as the body adjusts to no longer having kratom, which may include intense cravings to relieve the symptoms.

Though the risk of dependence hasn’t been well researched, it appears to be a higher likelihood for people who consume higher doses regularly.

More research is needed to understand how kratom affects the body, both in short-term symptoms and long-term use. The effects of kratom may vary according to the natural potency of the plant, the way the product is formulated, how it’s consumed, and the individual’s medical history and history of substance use.

Despite being marketed as a “safe” alternative to opioids, people may experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking kratom. This is especially true for users who develop a tolerance to kratom, requiring larger doses to achieve the same effects, which increases the risk of adverse reactions and withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. The potential for abuse is heightened by the lack of regulation and standardization in kratom products, leading to variability in potency and composition. Typical kratom withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle pain
  • Joint stiffness
  • Runny nose

How Is Kratom Addiction Diagnosed and Treated?

There’s still debate about the risk of kratom addiction, but it would fall under a substance use disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the symptoms may include:[6]

  • Inability to moderate or stop using the substance
  • Continued use of the substance despite the problems it creates
  • Increasingly reckless behaviors
  • Tolerance to the substance
  • Limited interest in activities that used to be enjoyed
  • Withdrawal symptoms when the substance is no longer used
  • Low productivity or problems at school, work, or home

Kratom Addiction Treatment

Kratom addiction isn’t recognized as a unique substance use disorder, but some evidence suggests that treatment with buprenorphine and naloxone products may help someone who’s trying to stop regular use of kratom.

For people with withdrawal symptoms, the treatment may include medical detoxification (detox). This allows the body to rid itself of kratom more comfortably with the help of medication and a team of medical professionals.

Once detox is complete, people can transition into inpatient or outpatient treatment programs that address the underlying emotional or behavioral issues that contribute to substance use. These programs offer an integrated approach with modalities like behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, and support groups.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is Kratom Legal in Thailand?

Kratom has been classified as a prohibited substance by the Narcotics Act 2564 since 1979. In 2021, the Thai government passed the updated Narcotics Act to remove kratom from the list of prohibited substances and eliminate kratom-related offenses. This update allows people to possess and consume kratom on the grounds of Thai cultural norms.

What Is Kratom Used for in Asia?

In native cultures, kratom is used in traditional medicine, as it has been for decades. It may be used to relieve pain, increase energy, improve appetite, and boost sexual desire, much like khat or coca. Extracts of the leaves may be used to heal wounds or provide an analgesic effect.

Despite its use in traditional medicine, there’s little evidence to support kratom as a natural remedy and plenty of evidence of its risks.

What Is the FDA Warning on Kratom?

The FDA is currently warning consumers not to use kratom in its many forms, due to its action on the same opioid receptors as morphine.[7] The FDA also noted that kratom may have properties that put people at risk of addiction, dependence, and abuse, much like other illicit substances.

There are no FDA-approved uses for kratom. At this time, the FDA is reviewing reports concerning kratom safety and seeking information through all available scientific resources, but warns consumers to be careful using kratom or kratom-derived products.

Can Kratom Be Used Therapeutically?

Though the touted benefits of Kratom haven’t been evaluated thoroughly or proven, several organizations are supporting and conducting research to evaluate medicinal properties and the chemical compounds in kratom that may have therapeutic potential.

What Are Other Names for Kratom?

Kratom goes by the scientific name Mitragyna speciosa in the Rubiaceae botanical family, but it has several common names including ithang, biak, gaiam, gra-tom, kadamba, akuam, mambog, puri, and thom.

What Is the Kratom Consumer Protection Act?

Kratom has a mixture of detractors and advocates who are arguing for or against its legality. Currently, the US and international agencies are reviewing the evidence to inform kratom policy, though it’s legal on the federal level.

The Kratom Consumer Protection Act is a movement that protects kratom legality in a particular state while allowing regulators to create requirements for its sale and use, such as a minimum age for purchase and transparent labeling. This may help to protect consumers from unregulated kratom products with toxic ingredients or high potency. Several states have currently passed the bill.

Take Back Control From Kratom Addiction

Though kratom products are derived from a plant, that doesn’t make it safe. Reports are coming out connecting kratom with serious side effects, including overdoses and psychosis. Kratom acts on the opioid receptors in the brain, so it’s possible to become addicted to it like any other opioid.

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Sources

[1] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023, April 24). Kratom. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/kratom on May 3, 2023.

[2] Prozialeck, W. C., Edwards, J. R., Lamar, P. C., Plotkin, B. J., Sigar, I. M., Grundmann, O., & Veltri, C. A. (2020, July 30). Evaluation of the mitragynine content, levels of toxic metals and the presence of microbes in kratom products purchased in the western suburbs of Chicago. International journal of environmental research and public health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7432033/#:~:text=Pharmacologic%20studies%20have%20shown%20that,hydroxymitragynine%20%5B7%2C8%5D on May 3, 2023.

[3] Kratom Mitragyna Speciosa Korth (street names: Thang, kakuam, thom … (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_chem_info/kratom.pdf on May 3, 2023.

[4] Kratom Mitragyna Speciosa Korth (street names: Thang, kakuam, thom … (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_chem_info/kratom.pdf on May 3, 2023.