A new herbal alternative ‘super drug’ is becoming popular in the US — and no, it’s not marijuana. It’s called kratom. So what is kratom?

What is Kratom?

Kratom, with the scientific name Mitragyna Speciosa (M.S.), is a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia. It is indigenous to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea, where people know it by various names. Malaysians, for instance, call kratom Biak-biak or Ketum. Indonesians are apt to call it Kadamba or Puri. The Thais go with Bai krathom, Kakuan, or Ithang, while in Vietnam it’s called Giam.

Southeast Asians have used kratom in traditional medicine for centuries. Many attest to its benefits, which range from pain management to mental health cures. It is new to the Western world, where few studies are yet available to back up its claims. Its popularity remains controversial; it has even been flagged as potentially dangerous for consumption.

How Kratom made its way into the US

No one knows exactly how kratom made its way into the US. In fact, for the most part, much of the American population may still not know about it at all. When you ask, “What is kratom?” people will most likely give you a blank stare.

According to historical documents, its use in Asia dates as far back as the 1800s. Reports show that the Dutch also discovered kratom’s use at about the same time, which is why it is also popular across Europe. The US is a Johnny-come-lately: Americans only began to hear about it in the past 2 years. But its use has since been rising, and there are no signs of its popularity dying down anytime soon.

What is Kratom? Is it related to coffee?

Kratom is part of the Rubiaceae family–the same family as coffee. This is why many assume that these plants are more or less similar. Also, coffee and kratom are often compared side by side by kratom sellers. Besides looking similar, the beans of both plants appear to have the same effects. They both have psychoactive properties and give their consumers a quick energy boost.

Without a doubt, coffee consumption all over the world is huge. As a matter of fact, in the US alone, it is an 18 billion dollar industry.

Coffee has a lot of undesirable side effects. People complain of issues ranging from indigestion to high blood pressure. Even so, coffee is still the unbeatable fuel that drives the American workforce. Kratom has the potential to be an even better alternative to coffee. It gives you the same boost of energy without the jitters and crashing after-effects.

Upon closer inspection, the chemical make-up of kratom and coffee cannot be more different. Coffee, while bitter and often considered by many as an acquired taste, has a pleasing aroma. Kratom, try as it may to equal coffee, is off-putting. Its smell is pungent and nauseating, and very much undesirable to the naked senses.

What is Kratom? A closer look

What is kratom’s chemical make-up? How exactly does it affect the body? The key compounds found in the leaf of the kratom plant are mitragynine (the plant contains levels between 1.2-2.1%) and 7-hydroxy mitragynine. These active alkaloids function much like opioid receptors. They slow down the brain’s pain response, which is why the great debate of whether it is an opioid or not comes into play.

By now, you may have a sense of what exactly makes kratom so popular: Its potential to reduce pain. In the US, about 23% or 54 million people suffer from arthritis-related pain. Statistics also show that 47.9% of diabetic patients endure nerve damage pain. About 20.4% of the entire US population classify themselves as chronic pain sufferers. With around 19.6 million people suffering from high impact chronic pain, no wonder it’s seen as a miracle plant.

Pain affects more than the physical function of the person. More than limiting motor ability, it can also affect one’s mood. A man in pain is likely to become stressed, anxious, and depressed. As is true for all other pain medications out there, it is man’s pursuit for a better quality of life that drives kratom’s popularity.

Does it heal?

Kratom users are best profiled as self-prescribing chronic pain sufferers. The second largest group is individuals who are going through acute withdrawal from opiates. Kratom’s effectiveness, however, is still considered by many as anecdotal. Licensed practitioners have yet to recommend the drug.

What ailments does it help with?

Kratom helps manage cramps, chronic pain from arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other similar conditions. It is also used for diarrhea and other digestive disorders, and for respiratory issues. It can serve as a stimulant and an energy and mood enhancer. It helps with anxiety and depression, and some even claim it helps with their libido. The possibility of so many benefits from a single substance draws many to it.

How is kratom taken?

Users take kratom orally. They boil the leaves like tea or mix the powder form with liquid and a sweetener to mask the bitterness. It is also swallowed as a pill or capsule.

What makes kratom controversial? Is it really dangerous?

  • Opiate-like qualities. Issues surrounding the drug center around its ‘opiate-like’ qualities. Like heroin, it can be addictive. The truth is, kratom actually has dozens of active components. Depending on consumption, they can have a different effect altogether.
  • Lack of reliable dosage information. In small doses, kratom drinkers say, it is no more than a stimulant, much like coffee. The reality is, there is very little reliable information about what amount causes which effect.
  • Lack of regulation and issue of legality. In the US, there is no specific regulation covering the growth, handling, and marketing of kratom. The legality of the drug also has many issues. Several US states and some cities have banned kratom, but only when it’s labeled as a dietary supplement.

To get past these restrictions, marketers label their products as soap making or aromatherapy supplies. This makes kratom’s reputation as a drug even less credible.

Moreover, the unregulated processing of kratom-related products makes them prone to contamination. There is no guarantee that the products in the market are not laced with other dangerous substances. Even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where kratom comes from, has outright banned the cultivation of the drug. This makes the sources of kratom supplements in the market even more questionable.

Conclusion

Many people have now heard of kratom, and many more will eventually hear about it.  People are talking about it, considering and weighing its pros and its cons.

Data from the American Kratom Association shows that at least 3-5 million Americans in the US are active users. It has grown into a 1-Billion US dollar industry, and there are a great many opportunities still to explore. New regulations can help determine safe dosage and keep it contaminant-free.

The government needs to do more research on its benefits and addictive properties. Studies must ask, ‘What is kratom?’ and pursue the truth without distorting little known facts.

 

If you wish to learn more about what kratom is and the latest research around it, stay tuned to the Ovus Medical Blog.   We will be having a series of articles about kratom in our blog.

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