Tox Tuesday: Kratom

A relative of the coffee plant is causing a debate regarding the substance’s potential benefits and dangers.

Kratom comes from the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa, a tropical tree found in parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Malaysia. It is consumed in a tea, through chewing or in pill form. Kratom can act as both a sedative and stimulant – when taken in low doses it increases alertness and energy, while at high doses it acts more as an opiate, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Traditionally, kratom was used as a stimulant for laborers who needed extra energy and to ease muscle pain. Likewise, it also has been used as an opium substitute and as a way to mitigate symptoms related to opium withdrawal. Kratom contains mitragynine, which binds to the same receptors as morphine and causes its pain relieving properties, according to Scientific American.

Although kratom currently is not illegal in most of the U.S. (nor is its use monitored on nationwide surveys), that could be changing (the exception is Indiana, which banned kratom consumption). A bill submitted in the Massachusetts House of Representatives sought to outlaw kratom. It failed in its first attempt but the state representative who filed the bill said he would keep trying, according to CBS Boston. Other public health officials have raised overdose and addiction concerns linked to kratom, leading to its listing as a “drug of concern” by the DEA.

The DEA lists long term effects of kratom addiction as including anorexia, insomnia and dry mouth. Withdrawal symptoms also were reported, including aggression and aches.

While some in the U.S. are looking at increased regulation or outright banning kratom, Thailand is considering legalizing kratom as a mechanism for treating methamphetamine addiction (the drug was banned there decades ago).

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