For millennia, humans have looked to the healing bounty of the earth to ease their pain, soothe their anxieties, and in general suffuse them with a sense of peace and wellbeing. We have used medicinal and psychogenic botanicals to make teas, ointments, tinctures, and more. Quite often our lives have been longer, healthier, and happier for them.
However, that does not mean that everything that blooms from the earth is a friend to humanity. Consider deadly nightshade. Oleander. Hemlock.
It can be tempting to equate everything that comes from nature as invariably safe, protective, life-giving, and life-restoring. These false assumptions can have lethal consequences.
Take, for instance, the psychoactive herb, Mitragyna speciosa, better known as kratom, which, in recent years, has gained widespread popularity as an ostensibly “safe” alternative to opioids. Users claim that kratom offers a myriad of physiological and psychological benefits, from alleviating pain to promoting relaxation, and even preventing panic attacks.
Despite the lofty claims made by kratom users, supporting evidence remains scarce at best. What is not in dispute, though, are the real and documented harms linked to the use of the herb, including nearly 2,000 reports in the United States alone of kratom poisonings, some fatal, between 2011 and 2017. The simple fact is, if you’re looking for a safe, natural, non-addictive way to ease your pain or reduce your anxiety, you need to search elsewhere. This article explores the significant and wide-ranging risks of turning to kratom as an opioid alternative.
The Myth of Harmlessness
The significant popularity that kratom has attained in recent years derives largely from widespread assertions regarding its safety. Much like the false narrative surrounding the use of “medicinal marijuana,” the prevailing kratom myth claims that kratom presents far fewer health risks than opioids because it does not act on the central nervous system (CNS) in the same way opiates do. Thus, according to these claims, users do not have to fear the principal threat of opioids, which is severe respiratory depression (1).
To be sure, kratom does not appear to pose the risk of respiratory depression and respiratory arrest that opiates do (2). That does not mean, however, that kratom cannot act on the central nervous system, particularly when combined with other drugs. Indeed, because the mechanisms through which kratom may interact with other drugs are not yet well understood, researchers and healthcare providers alike are sounding the alarm over the use of the herb in conjunction with prescription pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs, and other supplements (2). In fact, there is mounting evidence that undetected drug interactions may well have caused a significant number of kratom-related deaths, particularly given kratom’s documented impacts on liver metabolism (2, 3, 4, 5).
As significant as the threat of fatal drug interactions may be, this is far from the only risk associated with the use of kratom. There is vast evidence that links kratom use to organ toxicity and failure. This risk appears to be particularly significant for the liver, kidneys, and heart (6, 7, 8). These studies have linked kratom use to the development of life-threatening hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver failure, and heart failure (9, 10).
In one vivid example, researchers explored the case of an otherwise healthy 35-year-old male who suffered cardiac arrest following kratom ingestion (11). The patient was found to have no comorbidities or pre-existing risk factors, nor had the patient ingested any substances other than the herb. Nevertheless, the patient was found to have experienced both heart rhythm dysfunction and multiple small strokes after ingesting the drug, resulting in cardiac arrest (11).
In addition to the risk of organ toxicity, kratom use has also been strongly associated with severe neurological impacts. The most prevalent of these adverse neurological impacts is the development of treatment-resistant seizures in patients with no prior history of epilepsy or other seizure disorders (12, 13). The research also suggests that kratom use can induce breakthrough seizure activity in persons undergoing treatment for epilepsy (14).
Abuse, Addiction, and Withdrawal
Perhaps one of the most dangerous myths associated with the use of kratom as an opioid alternative is that, unlike opioids, kratom is non-addictive and does not produce withdrawal symptoms. In fact, evidence indicating the addictive potential of kratom is strong, with increasing reports of misuse, abuse, and withdrawal (15, 16, 17).
Indeed, Shah et al. (2021) recently examined both the increasing prevalence of kratom abuse and addiction and intensifying efforts to classify kratom as a Schedule I drug (18). These concerns, the authors note, have been galvanized by the growing awareness of the mechanisms of kratom and, in particular, its nearly identical properties to opiates at high doses, combined with a risk for organ toxicity and drug interactions that appears to be even greater than the risk posed by opioids (18).
Lending further support to emerging claims of the addictive potential of kratom are recent studies describing cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in newborns exposed to kratom prenatally (19, 20, 21). The research indicates that instances of kratom-related NAS produced moderate to severe symptomatology which typically resulted in prolonged hospitalization after birth, as well as opioid treatment to manage withdrawal symptoms during the first months of life.
How Bayshore Can Help
If you or someone you love is struggling with opioid addiction, you don’t have to resort to an unproven and demonstrably dangerous substance such as kratom. Likewise, if you are experiencing a kratom dependency, you don’t have to risk the dangers of unassisted detox.
Our expert team of recovery specialists at Bayshore is uniquely qualified to provide the comprehensive care you need to break free of your addiction. We offer a full range of services, from nutrition education to art therapy to yoga, to treat the whole person, not the addiction. Our onsite mental health specialists provide individual, group, and family counseling, and our medical teams are licensed to prescribe short-term pharmaceutical treatment as appropriate during the detoxification phase of your recovery.
Contact us today to discuss how the team at Bayshore can help you break the chains of opiate addiction or escape the shadow of kratom.