As far as drugs go, kratom would be relatively new on the scene, at least in the United States and Europe. In Southeast Asia, however, it’s long been used as a painkiller, an anti-diarrhea medicine, and a recreational drug. Kratom is derived from a tropical evergreen tree that’s native in Southeast Asia, including countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. This natural botanical substance is used in the form of an herbal supplement. It’s also used as a remedy, and there are benefits that users experience from it, including increases in energy levels and pain relief.

While there have been moves in the U.S. to ban kratom, there are also many proponents of its use that find that it has value for many different reasons. At the same time, there has been a great deal of opposition to kratom’s use in the U.S. as well, and it’s still a hotly debated topic.

What Is Kratom?

Kratom is an herb native to southeast Asia that’s in the same family as coffee. The leaves of the kratom tree are used, and they can be eaten raw or crushed and brewed as a tea. Kratom, like most herbs, can also be made into capsules or tablets as well as liquids.

People in favor of the use of kratom claim that it provides relief from not only mild to moderate pain, but also depression and anxiety. There has been quite a bit of scientific research showing that kratom may also be useful as a way to help people with addictions, including opioid addiction.

When kratom is taken in low doses, it’s a stimulant. When taken in large amounts, it typically acts as a sedative. There are two compounds found in the leaves of kratom which interact with the brain’s opioid receptors, which is how the herb produces effects including sedation and pleasure, as well as pain relief. These effects are particularly noticeable when someone takes large amounts of kratom. When someone takes a smaller amount of this herb, it interacts with other brain receptors as a stimulant. This means the person who takes it will often feel more energy, more alert and more social, rather than feeling the sedative effects of larger doses.

While kratom acts on the brain like an opioid, this drug doesn’t lead to some of the most dangerous and deadly side effects of drugs like morphine, including slowed respiratory function and constipation, but research on the herbal substance is limited, and researchers are unsure of just how dangerous potential side effects of its use could be.

Some of the health effects of using kratom can include:

  • Nausea
  • Being sensitive to sunburn
  • Itching
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Constipation
  • Increased urination
  • Loss of appetite

There are some users who have had psychotic symptoms with kratom. Kratom is not associated with fatal overdoses, but when people buy commercial versions of the drug, it has other ingredients or compounds that have led to death.

One of the most common questions a lot of people have about  kratom is whether or not it’s addictive, and like other opioids, there is the possibility of dependence on this herbal drug, including physical dependence and psychological addiction.

Kratom is described as a class off drug that’s a “New Psychoactive Substance,” as defined by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Some of the other drugs that are classified this way include a substance called khat, which is a plant that originates in East Africa, as well as synthetic ketamine and mephedrone. These drugs aren’t illegal yet in the U.S. or Europe, making them popular among young people in particular, but among many others as well.

Signs of Kratom Abuse

If you’ve never used kratom, or you don’t know much about it, you may be wondering how to know if someone is on it, or what the signs or symptoms of kratom use or abuse might be. In general, when someone takes small amounts of the herb, they will usually experience a stimulation effect, while at high doses, the effects will be similar to a sedative. It’s unusual that a substance could have these varying and opposing effects at different doses.

Some of the specific effects of using small doses of kratom include:

  • Alertness
  • Increased levels of physical energy
  • Talkativeness
  • Increased social behavior
  • More ability to do tedious tasks

In some cases, even with small doses of kratom, users may experience feelings of nervousness or edginess. With larger doses, as mentioned, there would be symptoms similar to other depressants, such as being very relaxed or even drowsy. It can also cause users to feel like they’re in a dream-like state, much like a psychoactive substance.

Kratom plant

Is Kratom Addictive?

Kratom is currently being very closely monitored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the FDA, and it’s referred to as a “drug of concern” by U.S. agencies. While it’s not currently a controlled substance, it’s believed to be potentially addictive, and people can develop a physical dependence, particularly when it’s regularly abused. The reason is that, comparable to drugs like heroin, kratom works on the brain’s opioid receptors. Any time this happens, there is the potential for the brain and the body to become dependent on this interaction.

According to the New York Times, while kratom is often touted as a cure for heroin addiction as well as the withdrawal symptoms that can occur while someone is trying to stop using these drugs, the drug itself can lead to dependence.

Using kratom, especially if it’s done regularly, can lead to cravings that will contribute to a person wanting to use the drug over and over again. Even when kratom use starts out recreationally, it can lead to cravings that then turn into daily use, and attempting to stop using it will lead to withdrawal symptoms. While addiction statistics in the U.S. are currently not fully available, in Southeast Asian countries where the use of kratom has been employed for many years, it is known to be addictive. Many countries in Southeast Asia have actually restricted the use of kratom because of the potential for abuse, including drug-seeking behaviors and the potential for symptoms of narcotic withdrawal to occur.

Based on anecdotal stories and evidence, there is the belief that after daily use of kratom for about a month, there tends to be psychological dependence that occurs, and it takes about six months for a physical dependence to occur in most cases. There are certain types and strains of kratom that are more potent and can also lead to a much faster onset of addiction and dependence.

Some signs of kratom addiction include an increased tolerance to the drug, which develops very quickly, as well as long-term constipation, which is also a sign of opioid addiction. Many people who are addicted to kratom will not only crave it, but think about it obsessively. They will also use it daily, many times throughout the day. When someone is addicted to kratom, they will experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop using it, and there will be a lot of effort put toward making sure they have an adequate supply of the herbal substance.

While there are companies and organizations that like to praise kratom, there is such limited research on its potential harmful effects. There are also plenty of stories about how easy it is to become addicted to kratom, so it’s best to avoid using this drug altogether. Many people also consider it a gateway drug to other opioids.

Why Do People Use Kratom?

There are quite a few reasons people might start using kratom. Eventually, that use can turn to abuse, dependence and addiction. Many people find that the use of kratom seems appealing because they might have an untreated co-occurring mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression. Many people who become addicted to drugs as well as substances like kratom do so in order to self-medicate. They may feel like kratom can help them overcome their anxiety and feel more relaxed or social, or it can help treat associated side effects of mental disorders, such as insomnia.

Another reason people commonly use kratom is to replace the abuse or addiction to another opioid.

For example, there has been some research showing kratom can be beneficial in terms of helping people who are addicted to opioids like heroin because it attaches to the same receptors in the brain. While there is still a lot research that needs to be done in the area of opioid replacement therapy with kratom, it’s important for people to understand kratom is still addictive, and they may ultimately end up replacing one substance with another, particularly if they do so without being under professional supervision.

Some people will take kratom because they want the effects without having it show up on a drug test; kratom is not detectable by the same drug tests that are designed for illicit drugs like cocaine or marijuana. This has made its use desirable by some groups of people that are regularly drug tested, such as members of the military.

Kratom is also often used by young people who might not be legal drinking age. They see it as something they can legally purchase in many states, and it can have psychoactive effects. As a result, it’s becoming increasingly common by high school students, especially those who might not have access to alcohol.

Kratom plants

Common Kratom Street Names

Some of the other names people use to refer to kratom include:

  • Herbal speedball
  • Biak-biak
  • Ketum
  • Kahuam
  • Ithang
  • Thom

Kratom Abuse Statistics

Some of the debate surrounding the use of kratom in the U.S. has been centered around the fact that the CDC says:

  • In an estimated 42% of cases of kratom use between 2010 and 2015, there were some symptoms that presented themselves requiring treatment, although they weren’t classified as life-threatening.
  • According to the CDC, around 7% of exposure to kratom cases was classified as major and life-threatening.
  • The DEA says it knows of 15 deaths related to kratom between 2014 and 2016.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.