The herb kratom, from the leaves of the tropical tree Mitragyna speciosa which grows in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, has been used for centuries in folk medicine as a psychoactive drug to improve mood and relieve pain.
Kratom has been in the news as a relatively new street drug and has been linked to hospitalizations and multiple deaths from its use. Therefore, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is rushing to criminalize this substance by attempting to make it a Schedule 1 drug (as is heroin, LSD, cocaine, and other illegal drugs). There are also state agencies addressing the issue.
Kratom supporters—and even some drug policy experts—argue, however, that the DEA is acting too hastily to lump kratom into the opiod epidemic that this and other nations around the world are experiencing. They argue that the reported injuries and deaths from kratom abuse involve only individuals who test positive for multiple abused substances or who suffer from pre-existing medical conditions.
To date, the only significant side effects of consuming too much kratom are nausea and vomiting.
Scientists have provided preliminary evidence that kratom could become a promising prescription drug to treat chronic pain, depression, anxiety and opioid addiction. Certain members of the scientific community are siding with kratom proponents who are petitioning the DEA to allow additional time for further study of this ancient substance before outlawing the drug altogether.
Research has demonstrated that kratom provides both stimulant and sedative effects, depending on the dose given. The tree from which kratom is extracted is in the Rubiaceae family, the same family as Coffea—the genius of flowering plants that produce coffee beans.
These research results indicate that the two main alkaloid substances in kratom (mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitagynine) create a combination of CNS stimulation and depressant effects by binding to monoaminergic and opioid receptors in the brain.
Although most opioids have only pain relieving and sedative effects, low to moderate doses of kratom create a mild stimulant effect, and a larger dose relieves pain without the sedative side effects of opioids.
Current thinking is that when an opioid drug binds to a receptor site in the brain, it triggers a number of different responses in a cell in a sort of protein cascade effect. One response is pain relief, while another triggers the negative side effects of respiratory depression and even comatose sedation—both of which are responsible for many opioid deaths.
Kratom, on the other hand, stimulates the painkilling response, but it doesn’t have much effect on the proteins that cause the sedative and depressant side effects. Thus, this ancient herb has potential as an opioid-like painkiller without the risky side effects. It could even be used to relieve opiate addiction. Unfortunately, it is this same attribute that also makes it a popular street drug.
Ironically, the United States government has mandated (through additional regulations) that doctors prescribe fewer opiates to prevent increased drug abuse, but the DEA is rushing to ban kratom, an herbal alternative that could possibly help in that fight.
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