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Herbal Medicine and Kratom

Dec 15

For millions of people, kratom is a plant with medicinal properties. It's a tropical plant related to coffee trees, grown mainly in Southeast Asia. Its leaves contain chemicals called mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, which bind to brain opioid receptors and produce effects similar to morphine. People use kratom dosage to boost energy and improve mood. They also use it for pain relief and to help with withdrawal from opioids or other drugs. But it's not without its risks. NBC HEALTH spoke with experts to find out more about kratom and how it can affect the body.

In the United States, kratom is available over-the-counter as a herbal supplement, but it's not regulated like prescription medicines are. It's sold in head/smart/herbal shops and online. It's believed to come from a plant called Mitragyna speciosa, which is cultivated in South East Asia. It's been used in traditional cultures of that region for centuries. Fresh leaves were chewed to increase work efficiency and relieve fatigue for manual laborers, and dried kratom was brewed into teas for a variety of illnesses such as diarrhea, fever, depression, chronic pain, anxiety and addiction.

Some kratom users report that in higher doses, kratom produces euphoria and feelings of well-being. It can also cause nausea, vomiting, constipation and changes in heart rate and blood pressure. Some side effects may be dangerous, such as sedation, changes in breathing, hallucinations, seizures and addiction.

Other kratom users report using it to help with addiction and withdrawal symptoms from opioids or other drugs, as a way to cope with stress, anxiety, depression and other psychiatric conditions, for sexual dysfunction, improving mood, increasing energy, reducing drug or alcohol use and treating pain. The CDC claims that from 2016 to 2017 91 deaths were linked to kratom. But that claim should be viewed with skepticism, because most of those deaths had other drugs in their system at the time of death, making it impossible to link them to kratom alone.

Despite the skepticism of many medical professionals, a small number of kratom users do become dependent on it. They may experience cravings for the plant, even after stopping use, and they can become addicted to the psychoactive compounds in kratom. They can also develop withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, agitation and difficulty sleeping.

Some health care professionals say banning kratom would leave patients with few options to treat their chronic pain. But others, including Dr Peter Grinspoon, a primary care doctor and instructor at Harvard Medical School, believe that regulating kratom is the better option. He says that if it's regulated, doctors could give patients safe doses for their specific conditions. And that could lead to more research on a drug that has already shown promise in helping some with chronic pain. Follow NBC HEALTH on Twitter and Facebook. Jacqueline Stenson is a health and wellness writer who has written for Los Angeles Times, Reuters, Health, Self and Shape. She teaches at UCLA Extension's Writer's Program.