The FDA’s responsibility is to safeguard public health and this past February, it issued a health advisory against kratom, a herbal substance. In the report, it claimed the plant has caused at least 36 deaths, but the whole story is a bit more complicated. Is kratom as deadly as heroin or a possible cure for the opioid crisis?
What is kratom?
Kratom comes from the leaves of a coffee-like tree native to Southeast Asia. Traditionally, people would pluck and chew the leaves to relieve pain, increase their energy, and boost sexual libido. The leaves could also be used to heal wounds, coughs, menstrual cramps, and stomach infections. If you didn’t want to chew the leaves, kratom would also be consumed as a tea, a pill, an extract, or even smoked.
The active molecules in kratom do something unique: they bind to neuronal receptors. Why does this matter? Opioids (heroin, morphine, codeine, etc) also do that. This means kratom has opioid-like effects such as lifting one’s mood and relieving pain. Those who advocate kratom’s use say it could be used for mental illnesses and chronic pain. The idea that’s been generating the most interest and the most controversy, however, is the usage of kratom as a way to wean off opioids.
Kratom as an addiction resource
There are dozens of stories of former addicts using kratom to ease their withdrawal symptoms, which can be agonizing. Instead of suffering and having to put their lives on hold, recovering addicts are able to take kratom and make it through their day. Less withdrawal can prevent relapses. The problem is that organizations like the DEA think the herb acts too much like an opioid to be safe. In theory, someone could become just as addicted to kratom as to heroin. A few years back, the DEA tried to have kratom put in the same category as LSD and heroin. That means it couldn’t be prescribed or sold at all. The American Kratom Association intervened and raised money for lawyers and lobbyists they sent to Congress. The advocacy worked and kratom was kept off the list.
The struggle continues. Just this past February, Scott Gottlieb (commissioner of the FDA) pointed to a number of deaths and said that kratom should not be used for medical or recreational purposes. In April, all kratom companies were told to destroy their supplements because of a salmonella outbreak.
Is the fear justified?
While the FDA says kratom is a dangerous drug comparable to heroin, those who have benefited from it say otherwise. The problem is that because it’s a herbal supplement, there aren’t a lot of regulations on dosage or quality, making it too easy for problems to arise. The salmonella contamination is a prime example. And what about the reported deaths? Is the FDA right to blame kratom? It’s important to know that nearly all tested positive for multiple substances, some illegal, that must have contributed.
Until more precise, thorough research is performed, many people don’t want the FDA to start making claims about kratom and blocking its use. The comparison to the fight over legalized marijuana can’t be avoided; maybe one day, kratom will become a common prescription and resource for recovering addicts.
While kratom doesn’t have much scientific research to back it up, other herbs do. Herbal medicine is a tradition that goes back thousands of years and new studies are starting to reveal why.