Plant of the month: Kratom, an alternative to opioids?

  • As has been the case with other plants like cannabis, Kratom or Mitragyna speciosa is currently causing a fair bit of controversy.
  • Countries like the U.S. have already banned its use on grounds that it is a potentially addictive drug that can be harmful to health. 
  • Many argue, however, that kratom can be a powerful tool for pain relief and, above all, for fighting the symptoms of heroin withdrawal.

What is kratom?

Kratom, known scientifically as Mitragyna speciosa, is a plant belonging to the Rubiaceae family. The leaves are dark green ovals and the flowers grow in clusters of three at the end of branches. It is native to Southeast Asia, where it has been used in traditional medicine for centuries, either crushing the leaves in water or brewing them into tea.

What are the effects of kratom?

Kratom's effect on humans can be described as biphasic, which means that while low doses produce invigorating effects, high doses can lead to sedation. In fact, this mode of action is often compared to that of opioids, a similarity that is partly due to the fact that the alkaloids contained in kratom have the ability to interact with the opioid receptors in the body, causing very similar effects. This is why kratom can be effective in treating the symptoms of withdrawal from heroin.

What are the uses of Kratom?

Traditional use of Kratom

As mentioned above, Kratom has been used for centuries in traditional medicine in Southeast Asia, where people would chew the leaves to soothe muscle pain, as well as to invigorate themselves and to increase appetite and libido. Mitragyna speciosa extracts have also been used traditionally as an analgesic for wounds, as a local anaesthetic and as treatment against diarrhoea and intestinal infections.

Kratom as an opioid substitute

While the plant's medicinal use has not been regulated, its advocates argue it can be a powerful tool during withdrawal from opioids, heroin in particular. Besides helping to overcome addiction, kratom would appear to be a natural painkiller. Still, the U.S. DEA has made it illegal on grounds that it is a highly addictive substance that can be seriously damaging to health. 

How is Kratom used?

Kratom can be used in a variety of ways, the most common being as tea or by chewing the leaves. That said, the plant is also commercially available as extracts and pills, and can also be smoked or taken with food.

Side effects

Taken in high doses, kratom can lead to side effects including:

  • Nausea
  • Sudden sweating
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Itching
  • Psychotic episodes

As mentioned already, kratom's effect depends largely on the dose. In small doses – 1 to 5 grams of fresh leaves – it has invigorating effects with mild flushing, dilated pupils and anxiety as possible side effects. In higher doses – 5 to 15 grams of fresh leaves – it produces sedative effects similar to that of opioids, including dizziness, sweating and tachycardia. Taken in very high doses for a prolonged time, kratom can lead to insomnia, muscle pain and diarrhoea.

While a kratom overdose is not likely to occur, a number of cases have been reported so far, some of which resulted in death. In most cases, however, the substance had been consumed in combination with alcohol or with other psychotropic drugs.

Warning: Kratom is an unregulated substance, so even if it can be easily bought on the internet, the product delivered to customers could be unsafe in terms of potency and purity. As a result, using a kratom product without properly researching it and whose quality is not recognised by an official body could be dangerous to health.


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