The Science Behind Kratom
Kratom, scientifically referred to as Mitragyna speciosa, is a rich Southeast Asian herb that’s been in use for centuries. People have been consuming this plant to heighten their mental and physical capabilities either by chewing the leaves or brewing it as a tea. These leaves produce complex opioid-like analgesic effects that work wonders for alleviating fatigue, managing pain, and most commonly, dealing with opioid withdrawal.
According to The American Kratom Association (AKA), a consumer advocacy group about Kratom, around 10 to 16 million people in the U.S. consume Kratom products regularly.
How It Works
Kratom leaves comprise a wide range of alkaloids – a class of compounds containing nitrogen atoms – that induce a variety of stimulating effects. There are at least 37 different ones, out of which, the two most active compounds are called Mitragynine and 7-Hydroxymitragynine. The former is an indole-based alkaloid while the latter compound is a terpenoid indole alkaloid.
Even though 7-Hydroxymitragynine is comparatively much less abundant compared to Mitragynine, it’s considerably more potent. In fact, a study concluded that 7-Hydroxymitragynine is 46 times more potent than Mitragynine and 13 times more than morphine2. But should that scare you? Absolutely not, and here’s why; these alkaloids are only present somewhere between 0.5 to 1.5% in dried kratom leaves. That’s considered to be a completely safe percentage for human consumption.
So, it is true that these compounds act on the brain’s peripheral and central nervous systems, giving you a similar effect of relief as any powerful opioid drug would. However, Kratom products come with a varying range of potencies and recommended doses to keep you out of trouble. So, if you’re a responsible buyer in general, you don’t have anything to worry about.
How Is It Different from Opiates?
“Opiate” is a term that has traditionally been circulated to categorize drugs derived from opium extracts of the poppy plant. So, it essentially refers to compounds – like morphine, hydrocodone, and codeine – that attach to the same receptors as opiates in the human brain. In a similar manner, the Mitragynine compound works by binding to these receptors. There are three major subtypes of these:
- The mu receptor; used to signify morphine which, to this day, is a predominant receptor
- The delta receptor; originally found in the vas deferens tissue of mice
- The kappa receptor; named for its affinity for ketocyclazocine
There is technically a fourth receptor as well for the neuropeptide nociceptin as it shows a high level of similarity with the first three. However, it actually exhibits very little binding activity with opioids, so it often is not considered.
Powerful opiates like morphine and heroin end up taking lives in most cases by causing severe respiratory depression – a condition where the muscles controlling the diaphragm fail and breathing stops. The Mitragynine and 7-Hydroxymitragynine compounds serve as partial agonists for the mu receptors. These bind to and activate this receptor at lower than 100% of the levels in comparison to other opioids. As observed in in vitro systems, beta-arrestin signaling is very noticeably absent during this process unlike the case with opiates. This could serve as a viable explanation for Kratom’s reported ability to induce significantly less respiratory depression in comparison with notoriously-powerful drugs.
The fact remains; Kratom is still not as addictive as other opiates. Even if we consider the absence of beta-arrestin signaling, it does not account for the addictive capabilities of an opiate. While it might not be clear yet, it should still be noted that getting rid of respiratory depression on its own means saving around 18,000 lives every year from an opioid overdose. That alone is a huge feat that Kratom is able to accomplish 3.
The Second Face of Kratom
Over the past few years, Kratom has started to become increasingly available in not just the United States, but the whole wide world. Each day there are more and more options where you can buy kratom online and around you where you can easily source the best Kratom products.
Unfortunately, being in the spotlight did not bode well for this herb. Kratom started gaining federal attention back in the early 2000s when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) listed it as a drug of concern4.
They planned to place the plant, and its two alkaloids in specific, into Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This means Kratom is considered to be a threat on the very same level as heroin or LSD. Categorizing it this way would mean illegalizing Kratom and its alkaloids, deeming them of no genuine medical use.
After less than two months, however, the DEA announced that it would withdraw this notice. This was only after receiving immense pressure from the general public who claimed that Kratom did them much more good than harm. There were thousands of comments urging the US authority to reconsider its decision. Many advocacy groups like the AKA and Botanical Educational Alliance (BEA) joined in the uproar where phone calls were made to Congress, a demonstration was held near the White House, and a petition with over 100,000 signatures was sent over. The DEA was left with no choice but to reconsider its decision. Not only that, but they opened up their hotline for people with genuine concerns about Kratom — a comment period. There has been steady progress since then.
It is still too soon to label Kratom as a dangerous or entirely safe substance because of a lack of scientific evidence. However, you cannot deny the general public who have their stories to share about how Kratom positively influenced their life. Thousands of individuals have reported that Kratom enables them to deal with chronic pain, helping them improve daily. War veterans have been using this miracle herb for not only pain relief, but also to be able to relax, get rid of symptoms of anxiety and depression, and help manage PTSD.
No one can outright deny these stories because Kratom has indeed helped many lives. Unlike the death toll from other opiates that seems to still be on the rise, this herb can do a lot of good for the community.