Image credit Wikimedia Commons user ThorPorre

Kratom leaves. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons user ThorPorre

Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a Southeast Asian plant that has been used for thousands of years as a traditional medicine, aphrodisiac, stimulant, and painkiller. But in recent years, the plant has moved beyond its Southeast Asian roots as individuals around the world have reported great success using kratom as a kind of opioid replacement therapy. The effects of this potential plant medicine are similar to a natural methadone but have less impact on cognition and a reduced  — but not negligible  potential for addiction. Kratom is legal in most of the US, and in combination with successful psychedelic therapies like ibogaine, it could be the next step in combating opioid addiction.

A Legal Plant with Opiate-Like Effects

While the alkaloids present in kratom are structurally different from the well-known opiates such as heroin, methadone, or oxycontin, they act similarly to these drugs and produce many similar effects. Unlike other opiates, however, kratom acts as a stimulant rather than a sedative at low and moderate doses, and it only creates the pronounced euphoric and analgesic effects typically associated with opiates at higher doses. This is likely why kratom leaves have been traditionally used by laborers in Southeast Asia in a manner very similar to how coca leaves are chewed in the Andes  to reduce fatigue, bolster energy, and stimulate the mind.

On the cautionary side, it’s important to note that kratom does have the potential for abuse. While anecdotal evidence from traditional Southeast Asian and modern Western use suggests that it is far safer and less addictive than stronger opiates and is an effective tool in ending addiction to those stronger opiates, some people have reported that daily use of kratom at high dosage levels can lead to addiction. More importantly, kratom has been scientifically researched very little, so its full neurological effects and drug interactions are not well understood yet.

Currently, kratom is federally legal in the United States and available at head shops, kava bars, and online outlets. Looming on the horizon, however, is the fact that the DEA has added it to its Drugs of Concern list, and Tennessee, Indiana, Vermont and Wisconsin have all outlawed kratom on the state level. This means that the scheduling of kratom as an illegal drug could happen, which would be a shame because it means exponentially more hoops to jump through to perform proper research into kratom’s potential benefits, and less of a chance for it to be made available in treatment for opiate addicts.

While kratom leaves have historically been chewed, it is also commonly consumed in capsules or as a powder dissolved in a liquid like fruit juice. | Image source: Wikimedia Commons via user Psychonaught

While kratom leaves have historically been chewed, it is also commonly consumed in capsules or as a powder dissolved in a liquid like fruit juice. | Image source: Wikimedia Commons via user Psychonaught

Potential Uses with Ibogaine for Addiction Treatment

When it comes to jungle plants that help with ending opiate addiction, kratom shares the stage with the West African shrub iboga and its alkaloid ibogaine, a powerful psychedelic that has gained significant attention in recent years for being able to interrupt even the deepest of opiate addictions in a single dose while reducing or eliminating the hellish symptoms associated with opiate withdrawal.

Ibogaine is at the forefront of psychedelic substances that have great potential for addiction treatment, and while it is immensely effective during and immediately after being administered, researchers and recovery coaches have emphasized the critical importance of proper follow-up care for patients after their ibogaine experience to help them from slipping back into hard opiate abuse. Kratom may provide just the right kind of buffer to help hardcore opiate addicts taper off their habit after an ibogaine experience without the use of methadone, which is commonly prescribed to recovering heroin addicts but is actually more addictive and harder to withdraw from than even heroin itself.

From a harm reduction standpoint, kratom and ibogaine together seem like a fantastic pairing for opiate abuse treatment, but more research is urgently needed to understand its benefits, toxicology, and appropriate use. Hopefully, as kratom continues to rise in popularity, scientists and substance abuse recovery specialists will uncover and share kratom’s potential before more governments move to outlaw it entirely.