During my stay at Punta Mona I was allotted the opportunity to work with a highly controversial plant that has an outstanding history, paired with a variety of highly medicinal properties. Prior to the moment when I first saw this tree in the flesh, I had only interacted with its dried and powdered green leaves twice. Once was in a class with Sarah Wu, while discussing the properties of stimulating and analgesic herbs, and the other was in a tea prepared by a friend in celebration of another’s birthday party. Both of these interactions provided me with a very relaxing, calm state of mind, with clear focus and quite honestly a rather good mood.
I was highly aware of the controversy, distaste and what seemed to be rumors circulating around the tree, even though I myself had had very minimal experience. I had not yet began researching this tree or its history, yet I was quite certain that the social objection of this plant must be the result of misinformation and assumption, per usual. I can now say, with confidence, that with the work I have personally done with the tree, followed up by intensely researching its history and properties, my assumptions about the controversy and perversion of this beautiful tree were correct.
Kratom, scientifically known as Mitragyna speciose, is a tropical evergreen in the Rubiaceae family, related to the well-known plants, coffee and gardenias. Being a water loving tree, it is known to be a river pioneer that grows well in swamps and deep valley areas. Which is a core reason as to why the tree is growing so magnificently at Punta Mona, where they have transformed what would be a very swamp-like area into a bio-diverse garden, home to many medicinal and edible plants, through permaculture tactics including the digging of chinampas and trenches which allow rain water to filtrate through the soil and out into the river and ocean.
Kratom is said to take up to twenty years to mature, growing between thirteen and fifty-two feet tall, with a trunk at two to three feet in diameter. In its life-time, the tree can grow into quite a large spread, taking up to fifteen feet in space. The bark of Kratom is smooth and light gray, with a pinkish undertone to its inner bark. The ovular shaped leaves grow opposite to one another in three different colors, at different stages in their growth. The colors, light red, yellowish-green, and dark green, have either a red or whitish, green vein depending on the strain, maturity and the condition surrounding the cultivation of the tree. These colors are also a good indicator of alkaloidal components present and their potency. The Kratom flower grows in yellow clusters, that later develop into small round fruits with flat seeds.
Kratom is native to several countries in Southeast Asia, with a long-standing history and cultivation in southern Thailand. For hundreds of years Kratom has been used in both traditional medicine, and by the working class. The leaf was traditionally chewed throughout the day to provide an ease to the fatigue and aches associated with the long hours of a common work day. Aside from this, Kratom has been traditionally used brewed in a tea, with the addition of lemon to help extract its medicinal alkaloids, and also a sweetener to help with the bitter flavor of the leaf. It has been known to be medicinally used at low dosages as a stimulant analgesic and at higher doses as a sedative analgesic. The Kratom leaf is also known to be used to treat anxiety, diarrhea, hypertension, fever, diabetes, depression, dysfunctional sexual performance, and for increased physical endurance. In recent years, there have also been testimonies of Kratom having a positive impact on PTSD and management of Lyme Disease symptoms, as well as an impact on pain associated conditions such as fibromyalgia.
After a brief explanation of the tree’s prolific and strong growth patterns, and it’s many traditional, medicinal uses, one might ask what the controversy could possibly be about. The answer to this question is seemingly complex, but also quite simple. Being a tree that has been used in practice in SE Asia for hundreds of years, where opium has also been a cultural practice and issue for quite some time, it is easy to find the connection between the two plants. Not only is Kratom a multi-purpose medicinal plant in all the ways stated, it is also a wonderful opioid substitute that assists those who have developed an opioid dependency with the withdrawal process. This very relationship is where the misinformation, the rumors and the historical battle of Kratom begins.
Kratom has been rather popular in Thailand since at least the early 1800’s, again mostly used by peasants, labor workers and farmers, but also used as an alcohol and opium substitute in both the Thai and Muslim communities of Southern Thailand. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that Kratom began to acquire increased attention and stigma, which came as a result of the opium taxation that took place in 1943. Due to increased prices of opium, many users switched to Kratom for its affordability and its assistance with the withdrawal process. This switch from opium to Kratom was rather obvious due to the noticeable impact it had on governmental income, being that Kratom, at that time, grew prolifically in SE Asia. Subsequently, Kratom was scheduled as a narcotic making the tree subject to heavy regulation and potential banning. However, the tree remained a large part of Thai culture and was tolerated in moderation. Still maintaining its popularity, Kratom was listed as one of the least restricted and punitive scheduled drugs in the Thai Narcotics Act in 1979.
It was in the 1990’s when Kratom truly began to be increasingly regulated and banned in SE Asia, with a few other countries in Europe following suit. However, it wasn’t until the early 2,000’s that the Thai government began to really adhere to the regulations in place, making Kratom a highly noticeable subject to arrests and seizures, so much so that even the trees themselves were vastly cut down throughout the southern regions of Thailand. This act is believed to be highly associated with a Kratom cocktail, known as “4×100”, that had begun to surface amongst the younger generation. The cocktail consisted of a Kratom tea mixed with either codeine or a diphenhydramine (a strong anti-histamine) cough syrup, paired with a soft drink. Though there have been concerning reports of harsh chemicals and benzodiazepines (strong, sedative anti-anxiety medications) added to the cocktails to increase its effects, there has been little to no attempts at increasing the regulation of these products, leaving Kratom at the forefront of the accusations and attacks.
As Kratom began to be known as an illegal substance used for an elevated sense of euphoria, rather than as a work aid and medicine, perversion around the plant became increasingly high to those who were less informed and familiar with the tree’s components and history. However, the bans, regulations, and distaste for Kratom has had little to no impact on its popularity or use amongst the working class and opium addicts. With Kratom being native to Thailand, and other countries in South Eastern Asia where regulation was slowly taking place, there was a vast impact on the quality and purity of Kratom that was now rising in popularity on the black market. Kratom products have continuously been found to contain additives that prove to be potentially harmful to those who use them, particularly in conjunction with the Kratom leaf.
I am a believer that each plant exists with purpose, and if used appropriately, they are all of great medicine, whether it be preventative or regenerative. With that being said, research on Kratom has proved its components to be highly medicinal, specifically with the ways in which it works with the opioid receptors and nociception within the brain. The two main alkaloids found in Kratom that have proven to work in this way are Mitragynine and 7-Hydroxymitragnin, MG and 7-OH-MG. At this time, these two alkaloids are only known to exist in Kratom, both producing effects similar to those of morphine. 7-OH-MG is said to be 50x more potent than MG, and 10x more potent than morphine. This increased potency is believed to be a result of its fat solubility, and because its ability to move through the blood brain barrier faster than that of morphine and other known opioids.
Here is where I now lead you into where the perversion of this beautiful tree began. Once discovering its similar properties to opium and morphine, Kratom began to fall under the broad term opioid, a combination of the words opium, and oid: meaning like or resembling. It is used to classify substances that have a binding affinity to one or more opioid receptors in the brain, with morphine like effects including, but not limited to, excessive restriction of the pupil, respiratory depression, tolerance build up to the substance or a cross-tolerance with other known opioids, the potential development of dependency, and a similar chemical structure.
Opioids are classified as agonists, a substance that mimics the effect of neurotransmitters, or other molecules in the brain. Naturally, our body interacts with the opioid system of our brain throughout each day. This system in made up of the Mu, Delta and Kappa opioid receptors as well as the Nociception. The functionality of this system contributes to a sense of motivation, emotional regulation, attachment behavior, stress response, and food intake, as well as pain reaction and regulation.
The activation of the Mu-opioid receptor, also known as MOR, causes a sense of euphoria, sedation and respiratory depression, meaning it slows breathing, decreasing the amount of oxygen making its way to the brain. The MOR is known to work heavily with the nociception, which is the area of the nervous system that alerts the brain when the body is at risk of physical harm through irritating or painful sensations, making it the main target of synthetic opioid drugs. The main issue with these drugs is the respiratory depression, which
can lead to brain damage or fatality, when taken in high dosages. Considering the rapid tolerance build up that can take place, this can be quite easy to do.
Molecules that bind to the Delta-opioid receptor, DOR, have shown to have antidepressant effects and to also increase BDNF, one of the most active chemicals that help the brain to form neural connections by supporting existing neurons through encouraged growth and regeneration, as well as encouraging the creation of new neurons and synapses. BDNF has been found to aid neuroplasticity, allowing the brains nerve cells to compensate for injury, new situations and changes in an existing environment. BDNF is also important for long-term learning because not only does it help with learning, but also memory retention and higher thinking. DOR activation has proven to protect the heart against damage from strokes, serve as a neuroprotective, and to assist with pain regulation and relief.
Activation of the Kappa-opioid receptors, KOR, is known to assist with rain relief, but sequentially has been found to produce bad moods, have diuretic effects and in high dosages has been known to produce hallucinations. However, activation of the KOR has also been known to oppose many of the effects of the MOR and can also prevent addiction to morphine, alcohol and cocaine. KOR is naturally activated by stress and plays an important role in learning, neuronal plasticity and the formation of myelination, a protective layer essential for proper functioning of the nervous system.
Naturally the brain works with these receptors to manage the condition of the heart, pain recognition, regulation and release, sleep regulation, diet regulation, stress response, motivation, emotional regulation, and feelings of emotional connection and support. Increasing these receptors and the molecules that bind to them are what create an opium like high, which can cause a severe mental and physical dependency, and potentially fatality due to respiratory depression, increased tolerance, lack of knowledge and the ever-increasing presence of impurities on the black market.
Now, before we dive into what this means in relation to Kratom, lets first acknowledge that the term opiate strictly refers to the natural alkaloids found in the opium poppy, Paver smoniferum, including morphine and codeine, and to clarify, opioid classifies non-opiates, with similar properties to that of opium and morphine. Being that Kratom works with these receptors, specifically the MOR and the nociception, having analgesic affects similar to morphine, it has been shoved into this broad category of opioids. However, what is not being openly discussed is its lack of relation to the potentially fatal symptoms of the drugs that fall into this category, such as diuretic like properties, respiratory depression, constipation and a high potential of increased tolerance, resulting in inevitable dependency. In these symptoms we find over doses as a result of dehydration, toxin build up in the digestion track and a lack of oxygen making its way to the brain, as a result we are in what is known as the Opioid Crisis.
In the U.S. alone, there are over 115 deaths due to opioid over dose each passing day. On average 25% of patients prescribed to these drugs misuse them, 9% develop an opioid use disorder, 5% of those who misuse these prescriptions transition into heroin use. Research has shown that around 80% of heroin users began misusing prescription opioids. Opioid related over doses increased 30% in 52 areas of 45 states between July 2016 and September 2017, with a 54% increase in large cities within 16 states. As a result of the transition to heroin, there has been an increase in intravenous administration, causing a contribution to the spread of infectious diseases including HIV and hepatitis C.
As of February 2018, only 50 deaths in the U.S. have been claimed to be a result of the use of Kratom, and none of these claims have been found to be true. Most, if not all, of these individuals were also under the influence of morphine, other opioids, or other drugs that are strictly advised to not be consumed when under the influence of opioids. The main defense on Kratom’s behalf is that Kratom does not cause respiratory depression, which is the leading cause of opioid related deaths. Additionally, in a low gram dosage, one can experience Kratoms analgesic effects paired with subtle stimulation, motivation and mood regulation. It is at higher dosages, between 10-15 grams, in which Kratom becomes more of a euphoric sedative, with increased adulterated symptoms. It is at this time when the consumer normally experiences intense nausea that inhibits them from taking more, or induces vomiting, making it increasingly difficult to build a high tolerance to Kratom which could potentially lead to an overdose on the tree’s leaves.
Thus far, most of the regulations around this tree have proven to be more of a matter of corporate and governmental financial gain, rather than health concerns. To my surprise, it was during Kratom’s review in the U.S. that the potential dangers of Kratom that were surfacing through vague, misleading statistics and studies were discussed. Also, during this time many individuals from mom’s, veterans, recovering addicts, and people suffering from chronic pain testified to the impact the tree has had on their life, how it has had no noticeable negative side effects, and that it keeps them away from synthetic prescriptions that have proven to be more harmful than not, as well as addictive and life threatening. In fact, there have been so many individuals speaking out in favor of this tree that even members of the Republican party took defense, asking congress to please not go into heavy regulation that would incite incriminating laws, or the banning of the proven to be safe, and useful tree, with high hopes of aiding the opioid crisis.
Though an abundance of information testifying to the safety and affectability of Kratom has surfaced through research and testimony, proving the unnecessariness of such harsh banning and regulation, Kratom is still being treated as a narcotic in many countries. It is currently illegal in 8 states in the U.S., with Oregon being the only listed state as having an ongoing study on the tree’s properties and side effects. Kratom is also currently banned in the following countries: Thailand, Australia, Burma, Finland, Denmark, Poland, Lithuania, Malaysia, Romania, Sweden, Myanmar and Vietnam. In Thailand, where Kratom has deep, historical roots within the culture, being used and known as traditional medicine for 100’s of years, Kratom is classed in the same group as cocaine and heroin, and possession of one ounce of extract is punishable by death.
Kratom, a beautiful tree with leaves that grow with a variety of present alkaloids, known to aid in multiple ailments, treat fatigue, assist in pain management and promote mood regulation, remains under the strict eye of judgement and perversion, while people around the world cripple at the hands of FDA approved drugs, which are known to have demobilizing side effects and potentially fatal symptoms. It is a tree of lore, wonder and beauty that is being slowly stripped away from nature, cultures and history, as a means of protecting the ever-increasing pharmaceutical industry and its relationship with governmental and corporate wealth.
I personally am grateful for the opportunity to sit with such a glorious plant, learn its history and get to know its truth. I can only hope that someone, somewhere, has a voice loud enough to ease the misinformed, controversial sensation revolving around the beautiful opiate like properties of these delicate leaves, and that the world I see crumbling beneath addiction has a chance to know the beauty behind this prolific, alkaloidal tree. Though I am sure it goes without saying, if you truly are curious I highly suggest finding a pure source of Kratom and giving it a try. At least then, when you state your own opinion, you also have experienced the way in which these complex leaves are capable of working with your body in the least debilitating way.