A Closer Look at Kratom: Nature's Cure or Natural Killer?

Image credit: Rodio Kutsaev (@frostroomhead) for Unsplash.com

Recently, it seems that everyone from Dr. Oz to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been talking about kratom. Even the DEA had jumped on the band wagon and briefly considering criminalizing it. What is kratom? Where does it come from? What is it used for and how has it come into the societal spotlight? Some say that it is the miracle cure, a gift, to the severe opiod crisis that we are in the midst of and some say that it is a merciless killer. Who's right?

What is Kratom?

Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is an evergreen tree found in Southeast Asia. It is indigenous to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. It is a member of the Rubiaceae family which includes edibles like coffee and medicinals like ipecac. In Southeast Asia, kratom is usually consumed in the form of chewed fresh or dry leaves. It is also made into a tea. Traditionally it is used as a way to lessen fatigue and increase work productivity by manual laborers[1].

It is also used in religious ceremonies by shamans, to treat morphine dependence in Thailand, and as an opium substitute. There are a few phytochemicals present in kratom like speciogynine and speciociliatine but the main psychoactive substances in kratom are mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine.

At low doses these alkaloids produce effects similar to stimulants like cocaine. At higher doses kratom acts like an opiate sedative.

Although this herb has been used in Southeast Asia as a stimulant and traditional medicine for millennia, the recent deaths associated with it has given many a cause for concern.

As of this writing, according to the FDA, there have been 44 deaths associated with kratom. The FDA had put kratom on an import alert in 2012 and 2014. Attesting to it's believed dangerous status, the FDA seized thousands of pounds of raw kratom and dietary substances containing it in 2014 and again in 2016. Does this mean that kratom is a dangerous substance that shouldn't be used for human consumption?

A Closer Look into the Kratom Deaths

44 reported deaths have been linked to the use of kratom. While any loss of life is a tragedy, it is helpful to look closer at these deaths to determine whether kratom is indeed the culprit it is made out to be.

The ages of the deceased encompasses a wide range. Some were as young as seventeen while others were middle aged at forty-five. While there is a female death mentioned, most of the deceased were Caucasian males.

Of the 44 cases listed as kratom related deaths, there are 2 that are related to kratom alone. The rest of the deaths involve multiple drugs combinations namely opioids and benzodiazepines.

1 of the "kratom related deaths" was actually ruled a suicide because the deceased was found hanged by deputies searching for him after a friend received a suicidal text message. This can hardly be attributed to kratom. The only reason why this was included as a kratom related death was because the substance mitragynine (a psychoactive chemical found in kratom) was found in the patient's blood in toxicology reports.

Another had pulmonary thromboemboli listed as his cause of death with polysubstance abuse as a contributing factor. Clearly this person had many factors contributing to his tragic death.

Some of the reports indicate the deceased had done internet searches on "natural ways to get high" bef