Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
Kratom products are legal per federal regulators in the United States, but some regulators hope to change that.
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.
But researchers warn that kratom can be incredibly dangerous, and some users have died due to substance abuse. Some people also develop addictions to kratom. Since the manufacturing of kratom isn’t tightly regulated, other people have taken substances tainted with drugs like fentanyl.
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.
How Does Kratom Work?
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.
While some people claim kratom helps them stop using other drugs, experts say 7-hydroxymitragynine works on the same receptors used by opioids like heroin. Triggering these receptors can lead to recognizable opioid use disorder symptoms, including drug cravings and uncontrolled substance abuse.
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
- 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.
FDA Warnings About Kratom
The federal government hasn’t made kratom illegal, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that the substance is too variable and dangerous for anyone to use.
In 2017, the FDA warned consumers that there were no approved therapeutic uses for kratom. And the organization said kratom appeared to cause the same problems associated with opioids, including abuse, addiction, and death.
The FDA continues to study kratom, but the organization says no one should use either pure kratom leaves or substances that contain kratom’s active ingredients. The FDA wants time to research these substances, including learning more about how they interact with traditional drugs, and until that work is done, they don’t believe kratom is safe.
The FDA may be proceeding carefully due to kratom advocates. 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.
Finding a way to keep people safe while avoiding controversy isn’t easy, but the FDA is trying to find the right balance.
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:
- Energy boosts
At high doses, kratom works like a sedative, causing these effects:
- Slow breathing
- Slow heartbeat
Kratom side effects include the following:
- Dry mouth
- Increased urination
- Irregular heartbeat
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 Do People Get Addicted to Kratom?
Two of kratom’s active ingredients work on brain centers associated with addictive behavior. Researchers suggest that chronic kratom users develop addictions by following a well-known model.
People use kratom, and the 7-hydroxymitragynine inside of it links to opioid receptors, triggering a release of dopamine. Mitragynine enhances the effect, allowing people to feel happy and relaxed.
Over time, brain cells will not release dopamine naturally. Instead, cells wait for another kratom hit.
Without the drug, people feel irritable and sick. And they develop an emotional attachment to the drug, craving it despite the consequences.
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.
What Does Kratom Addiction Look Like?
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.
People with kratom addictions can develop health issues, such as these:
- Weight loss caused by anorexia
- Darkened skin
- Frequent urination
If they attempt to quit using kratom, they may develop a withdrawal syndrome that causes these symptoms:
- Aching muscles
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:
- Prescription painkillers
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.
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.
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.
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.
Natural Herb Kratom May Have Therapeutic Effects and Relatively Low Potential for Abuse or Harm, According to a User Survey. (February 2020). Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Kratom. (March 2022). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The Good, the Bad, and the Maybe About Kratom. (April 2018). Healio.
FDA Warns Against Use of Kratom. (November 2017). Healio.
FDA and Kratom. (April 2022). U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The DEA Changes its Mind on Kratom. (March 2017). U.S. Pharmacist.
Kratom. (June 2020). Drug Enforcement Administration.
Kratom: What Science Is Discovering About the Risks and Benefits of a Controversial Herb. (January 2021). The Conversation.
Kratom: A Legal Drug That’s Dangerously Addictive. (August 2021). Child Mind Institute.
Kratom. (November 2019). Drug Enforcement Administration.
Notes From the Field: Unintentional Drug Overdose Deaths with Kratom Detected — 27 States, July 2016–December 2017. (April 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Assessment of Kratom Use Disorder and Withdrawal Among an Online Convenience Sample of US Adults. (February 2022). Journal of Addiction Medicine.
Kratom Abuse Potential 2021: An Updated Eight Factor Analysis. (January 2022). Frontiers in Pharmacology.
Current Perspectives on the Impact of Kratom Use. (July 2019). Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation.