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Kratom Addiction

Researchers warn that kratom can be incredibly dangerous, and some users have died due to substance abuse. Some people also develop addictions to kratom.

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Kratom products are available in some states via the internet and in-person shops. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved any prescription or over-the-counter products that contain kratom. The FDA also says kratom isn’t appropriate for use as a dietary supplement and cannot lawfully be added to foods. Some states have passed laws making kratom illegal.

Since the manufacturing of kratom isn’t tightly regulated, some people have taken substances they believed to be kratom that were tainted with drugs like fentanyl.

The American Kratom Association says up to 16 million Americans use kratom regularly. Some believe the drug helps them to avoid opioids and stimulants. Others just like the way kratom makes them feel.

If you’ve tried to stop using kratom and can’t, you’re not alone. Treatment teams can help you understand your addiction and develop robust coping skills for a happier future.

What Is Kratom?

The tree Mitragyna speciosa is the source of kratom products. While the plant grows naturally in Southeast Asia, some dealers grow it in greenhouses and on private farms. They harvest the leaves, try them, and turn them into teas, chewable substances, or capsules. 

Kratom leaves contain a variety of chemicals, but two are well known and studied.

  • Mitragynine, a stimulant medication
  • 7-hydroxymitragynine, a narcotic

People use kratom to alleviate opioid withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Others claim kratom can help to manage mental health issues like anxiety and depression. 

Understanding Kratom Addiction

Kratom production isn’t regulated by agencies like the FDA, so it’s difficult to know what’s inside every dose of kratom you take. However, researchers have studied some compounds found in kratom, and their work suggests it can be addictive.

Researchers say kratom users can develop hallmark signs of dependence, including the following:

  • Cravings for the drug
  • Tolerance to the drug, so they need to take bigger doses
  • Withdrawal symptoms (including depression, anxiety, and restlessness) when they try to quit

In case studies of people with kratom addiction, people discuss using the drug to help them deal with opioid withdrawal, but they find kratom delivers a mild sense of euphoria. In time, they describe spending as much as $75 per week on kratom. They cut back on activities they once enjoyed to make more time for drug use, and while they want to quit, they don’t feel able to do so.

Kratom addictions tend to develop slowly. In one study, people with a kratom addiction chewed the leaves for an average of 18.6 years. But every brain is different, and some people could develop problems much sooner.

The Chemistry of Kratom

Why do some people develop kratom addiction? Active ingredients in the drug could be to blame.

Kratom leaves contain a variety of chemicals, but two are well known and studied.

  •       Mitragynine, a stimulant medication
  •       7-hydroxymitragynine, a narcotic

Researchers say these substances work as partial mu opioid agonists. They latch to the same brain receptors used by drugs like heroin and painkillers like OxyContin. The chemical changes they trigger lead to euphoria, but as drug dependence develops, people need more of the drug to get the same effect.

Researchers say kratom works on other systems in the brain too. The drug may bind to serotonin receptors and adrenergic receptors, making the substance seem arousing and not sedating.

Agencies like the National Institute on Drug Abuse are conducting research on how kratom works at the cellular level. However, what we know so far seems to indicate that this drug isn’t safe for anyone to abuse.

How Can Kratom Hurt You?

Since kratom is legal, people in most states can walk into a health food shop, head shop, or gas station and pick up the substance. They can swallow caplets, brew leaves into tea, or smoke the leaves.

Researchers also say that kratom isn’t well studied, and it’s inherently dangerous to take. Experts know a bit about what people taking kratom have experienced, but they’re not sure why the drug causes the specific sets of reactions it does.

In a study of kratom-related calls to poison control centers, people reported the following:

  •       Fast heartbeat
  •       Agitation
  •       Seizures
  •       Slow breathing

People also developed salmonella poisoning from tainted kratom, and some had liver issues from chronic use.

Since few long-range kratom studies have been performed, experts just aren’t sure why the drug is so dangerous to so many people. The exact mechanism by which the drug impacts the body hasn’t yet been uncovered.

Kratom’s Legal Status

The federal government hasn’t made kratom illegal, but that may change.

In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) tried to reclassify kratom as a Schedule I (very dangerous) drug. Petitions, demonstrations, and calls to Congress halted that plan.

In 2017, the FDA warned consumers that there were no approved therapeutic uses for kratom. The organization said kratom appeared to cause the same problems associated with opioids, including abuse, addiction, and death.

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the FDA may regulate both drugs and dietary supplements in the United States. The FDA hasn’t approved any prescription drugs with kratom. The FDA has stated that kratom is an unapproved dietary ingredient and can’t be marketed as a nutritional supplement or food additive. 

In 2023, FDA personnel were authorized to seize imported kratom products without a physical inspection. FDA officials also seized American-made kratom products in 2023.

Several states have passed legislation making kratom illegal, including Alabama, Arkansas, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Other states have passed legislation to keep kratom from consumers younger than 18, and some prohibit kratom products with a high percentage of active ingredients.

Adverse Side Effects of Kratom

Kratom is a natural drug, but it’s still powerful. Many people have experiences with this drug that they’d rather forget. 

At low doses, kratom works like a stimulant, causing the following:

  • Alertness
  • Energy boosts
  • Talkativeness

At high doses, kratom works like a sedative, causing these effects:

  • Sleepiness
  • Slow breathing
  • Slow heartbeat

Kratom side effects include the following:

  • Itchiness
  • Nausea
  • Sweating 
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Increased urination
  • Irregular heartbeat 
  • Vomiting
  • Drowsiness 
  • Anorexia 

Some people using kratom have reported serious symptoms, such as liver damage, seizures, and hallucinations. 

Kratom products are unregulated, so it’s not clear how much of any active ingredient is included in doses consumers take. One batch might produce only mild issues, but another could be stronger and cause intense problems. 

Until the industry is regulated, there’s no way to know how much of the drug is inside each dose you’re about to take. Avoiding side effects is almost impossible. 

How to Recognize Kratom Addiction

Addiction is a psychological illness that removes a person’s ability to control drug use. Someone who is addicted to kratom may feel physically and emotionally unable to stop using it despite the consequences.

Signs of a kratom addiction include the following:

  • Inability to quit the drug, even though the person wants to do so
  • Feelings of sickness or withdrawal between doses
  • Using kratom despite the consequences
  • Cravings for kratom
  • Reduced involvement in things the person once loved to make more time for kratom
  • Health issues, such as weight loss, darkened skin, frequent urination, and constipation

People with kratom addictions may talk openly about their need to quit using and inability to do so. But some try to hide their issues and don’t disclose the problem to anyone.

Kratom Overdose Explained

Addictive drugs cause tolerance. People need to take more of the substance to get the same effect that smaller amounts once produced. The bigger the dose, the higher the risk of overdose. 

While kratom causes fewer overdose deaths than substances like heroin, some people have died due to kratom alone. Others have died due to mixing kratom with other substances, either intentionally or unintentionally.

 In one study of the issue, people who died were also taking one or a few of the following substances:

  • Heroin
  • Benzodiazepines 
  • Prescription painkillers
  • Cocaine

Some people experiencing a kratom overdose have symptoms similar to an opioid overdose. They stop breathing, turn blue, and their heart rates slow. But others develop unusual symptoms like agitation, fast heart rates, and seizures. 

Because kratom contains both a narcotic and a stimulant, the effects can be unpredictable. 

Treatment Options for Kratom Addiction

Kratom addiction treatment can be challenging, especially when compared to proven therapies for opioid misuse. No medication has been proven effective in helping to block drug cravings in people with a long history of kratom abuse. 

But even without medications, people can get better. The work progresses in three phases.

1. Detox

Your treatment team helps your body adjust to a lack of kratom. Medications may help to protect your heart and digestive system, and your team helps you cope with aching muscles, digestive distress, and other symptoms. 

In time, you’ll have no kratom molecules in your body, and your mind will clear. 

2. Therapy

If you’re living in a safe and secure environment, you can work on your addiction in an outpatient program. But if your relapse risks are high, an inpatient program could be a smart choice.

Your team will help you break down the causes of your drug abuse, and you’ll practice skills you can apply when you’re tempted to relapse. You may learn alternative ways to soothe mental distress, and you may find an inner strength you never knew you had.

3. Aftercare

When you’re feeling strong enough to resist temptation, you’ll scale back and move toward independence. Some people benefit from ongoing support group meetings to connect with people in recovery. Others keep attending therapy sessions to strengthen their skills.

The aftercare step may never end. You will likely always need to remain vigilant to guard against relapse risks. But over time, you’ll get stronger. 

No matter which exact path you choose, you can recover from your addiction and live a happier, healthier life. Reach out for help today to get started.

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated February 13, 2024
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