Controversial Kratom Growing in Popularity

Controversial Kratom Growing in Popularity

A complex, poorly understood plant product, kratom, or Mitragyna speciosa, has recently burst onto the American stage in a big way and gained the attention of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Mitragynine, the dominant alkaloid in the compound, has been found to have some opioid-like activity and some argue that it is useful in assisting patients who are withdrawing from either licit or illicit narcotic use. The debate about potential DEA regulation of this compound is, more than likely, just beginning.


Kratom grows naturally in much of southeast Asia, more specifically, in Malaysia.1 This evergreen tree can reach a height of more than 80 feet with a trunk diameter of 3 feet.1 The large, dark glossy green leaves yield the extract that is the active component of the tree.

Kratom has been used in its native environment for centuries for purposes ranging from religious ceremonies to wound healing. Its action as an opium substitute, however, was reported in 1836.2 Official notation of this plant and its action was first made by Dutch botanist Pieter Korthals in 1839.3 Despite centuries of use in Malaysia, the compound has been relatively slow to develop a following in the United States, but that appears to be changing.


The main mechanism of action of kratom is due largely to one of the more than 25 alkaloids found in its extract.4 Mitragynine, the dominant alkaloid, has been found to exert somewhat selective μ-opioid receptor activity, especially when used in moderation.5 Proponents of this chemical argue that it is useful in assisting patients who are withdrawing from either licit or illicit narcotic use. Those against the use of kratom take the stance that, since its action is basically opioid in nature, nothing is gained.

There are no clinical trials in humans to determine either the safety or efficacy of kratom. However, a growing body of laboratory data shows some very intriguing actions of the extract. One study demonstrated both adrenergic and serotonergic actions, as well as actual opioid antagonistic functions.6 These activities are seen as promising means to ease withdrawal from narcotic dependence.

In the absence of human clinical trials based in the United States, we are forced to depend largely upon pharmacokinetic data and foreign trials. One case report highlights the differing actions of kratom based on total daily dose.7 In this report, a man in his early 40s was using escalating doses of prescribed hydromorphone for a chronic pain condition. Due to a sudden change in his personal life, he was forced to abruptly cease use of this potent drug. In order to manage his intense symptoms of withdrawal, he began ingesting a kratom tea four times a day. He found that the tea greatly alleviated his physical pain without the typical sedation from prescription medication.7 

In a survey in Malaysia, researchers sought to determine the demographics and substance use habits of self-treated kratom users.8 Nearly 77% of participants reported histories of prior drug use, often heroin. At the time of the survey, more than 45% of participants were still using at least one other psychoactive substance. However, all participants reported greater productivity, better appetites, and reduced dependence on other drugs before beginning kratom use.8

Safety, interactions, side effects

The safety of this product is definitely in question. Due to its known opioid action, addiction and overdose are easily possible. In August 2016, the DEA published a notice of intent to classify this compound as a schedule I drug.9 Due to a huge public response, however, a formal retraction of that intent was published in October 2016, pending further review.9

Regardless of regulation, kratom should be considered an opioid compound and, as such, possess all of the potential side effects and interactions of the class. Until such studies are conducted that more clearly show safety and efficacy for specific uses, there is no current indication for this compound.

Kratom powder is a commonly used form in the United States

How supplied, dose, cost

Kratom is widely available in the United States either online or in most ‘head shops.’ It is available in a variety of forms including extract, powder, or capsule. Due to the lack of any quality control, there is no way to establish a ‘recommended dose.’ Also, the concentration of the active ingredient, mitragynine, varies widely based on the form of the product. Extracts tend to be more concentrated, while powders and capsules are weaker.

Those who report sporadic use for anxiety or other episodic concerns may only use 1 to 2 g at a time, whereas daily users managing chronic pain or intense withdrawal from other opiates report using as much as 15 to 20 g or more per day. The type of product and the amount used dictate cost, with an average cost per ounce of about $30.


With the abundance of approved medications at the disposal of healthcare providers, the use of an unproven and potentially dangerous product such as kratom is not justified. However, providers must be aware of the growing use of this compound in the United States and, when opioid use is either ongoing or newly initiated, screen for use of this product.

One Response

  1. Kratom had ZERO pain relief effect for my spouse or me. We tried 1 oz of a tincture of kratom.
    We felt a short energy burst, about equal to a couple of espressos. It wore off in 5, 6 hours. We took the tincture maybe twice a week. If we used it more, the effect lessened. After a month, we stopped, expensive! Espresso is cheaper.

    Making this Schedule I is absurd. Schedule II ridiculous.
    The Feds already took prescribing meds from MDs and handed it to bureaucrats, doctors with PhDs behind their names and to cowboy pharmacists who are holding our quality of life in their hands.
    I hope these ppl are content now, they’ve created pain, agony, suffering where there was a controlled level of discomfort so these patients could hug their kids, iron their husband’s shirt, or shop for Mother’s Day.
    One lady will be celebrating with her mom in the cemetery.

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