In the U.S. and across the globe, opioid addiction is destroying careers, families, and lives. But what led to this epidemic, and how can we solve it? Beginning in the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies informed the medical community that opioids were non-addictive — knowing this wasn’t true. As a result, physicians and medical professionals began prescribing this addictive medicine at an increased rate, leading to widespread misuse in the following decades.
Provisional data from the National Center for Health Statistics estimates there were 75,673 opioid-related deaths in the 12-month period ending in April 2021. That’s up from 56,064 the year before.
With death tolls rising and no clear end in sight, experts are looking for new ways to treat opioid addiction safely. Recent research from the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy shows that kratom demonstrates benefits in treating opioid withdrawal. This study, along with additional research, may prove what many Southeast Asian cultures have believed for generations — kratom is medicine.
The History of Kratom as Medicine
According to the National Library of Medicine, Kratom was traditionally used by laborers — farmers, fishermen, and rubber-tappers — in Southern Thailand and Northern Malaysia to improve their productivity and recover from hours of back-breaking work. This research also shows that people in these communities used kratom to treat common medical issues such as diarrhea, fever, and diabetes.
This study by the NLM went on to say that today kratom is widely available in many Asian countries, and consumers are often classified into two groups. The first group includes traditional laborers who use kratom to recover from strenuous work. The second group is believed to use kratom the way many experts hope to see in Western culture — as a tool to manage or reduce the intake of opiates.
Kratom for Opioid Withdrawal in the U.S.
Although many Southeast Asian cultures have used kratom to benefit their health and recovery for hundreds of years, University of Florida researchers learned there is still much hesitancy about the use of kratom in the West. Despite the hesitancy of Western physicians, kratom is gaining popularity across the U.S., according to research conducted by Healio. In their analysis, researchers at Healio looked through 500 YouTube videos about kratom use that were collected through a data scrape in July 2019. These videos have 19,478,180 views and 134,863 comments. Of the videos, 58% portrayed a positive experience with kratom.
In the U.S., kratom is sold as a dietary supplement and is not currently approved by the FDA.
University of Florida kratom tea study
In a controlled animal study conducted by the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy, researchers found that kratom reduces opioid withdrawal symptoms, has pain-relieving benefits, and causes minimal respiratory depression. Lyophilized kratom tea (LKT) was used for this study and is considered one of kratom’s purest and most traditional forms.
In this animal study, researchers gave LKT to morphine-dependent animals in varying doses while their symptoms were measured. UF researchers discovered that even minimal amounts of LKT significantly reduced withdrawal symptoms. Additionally, kratom did not show the dangerous side effects often associated with medications like methadone and buprenorphine.
After evaluating this research, Chris McCurdy, Ph.D., professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy, said, “What we learned was that across a wide dosing range — all the way up to the average human equivalence dose that people use — kratom was very safe and did not affect respiration or coordination. It looks to be a very safe and efficacious product in the model we used and in the more traditional-inspired form of medication that we used.”
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As the opioid epidemic continues to boil over, research shows that kratom may be able to help it simmer.
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