Is Kratom an Opioid?
Kratom is not an opiate – that term refers to substances derived from the opium poppy plant like morphine and codeine – but it is an opioid. Opioids bind to the same receptors in the brain that opiates do, but don’t activate them in exactly the same ways. In general, kratom is gentler than traditional opiates, and appears to pose a lower risk of addiction.
Kratom is notoriously difficult to classify as a “stimulant” or “opiate-like” because the dozens of alkaloids in kratom can produce significantly different effects. Depending on exactly what alkaloids are present and at what levels, kratom can act as a strong stimulant (for example, white Maeng Da) or exhibit potent opiate-like effects (for example, red Borneo) – and everywhere in between.
Kratom’s Stimulant-Like Effects
The alkaloid mitragynine – one of kratom’s two primary alkaloids – is a stimulant and will cause energizing and uplifting effects. If you are looking for kratom’s stimulant-like effects, choose a strain with high mitragynine content.
Kratom’s Opiate-Like Effects
The alkaloid 7-hydroxymitragynine – the other of kratom’s two primary alkaloids – is opiate-like and will cause sedation and euphoria, depending on the dose. If you are more interested in kratom’s opiate-like effects, look for strains with high 7-hydroxymitragynine content.
Kratom’s Painkilling Effects
Kratom has strong analgesic (i.e., painkilling) properties, making it a potential substitute for prescription or over-the-counter painkillers. Take a look at our report on the best kratom for pain for additional information.
How Does Kratom Interact With the Brain?
As noted above, kratom can cause effects similar to both stimulants and opioids, depending on the level of certain alkaloids and dose, among other factors.
Kratom’s two most important alkaloids – mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine – act as “receptor agonists.” Specifically, they show strong activity at the main opioid receptor (the “mu” receptor), which is the same one acted upon by opioids like heroin and oxycodone.
Especially at higher doses, and especially for strains with high 7-hydroxymitragynine content, kratom is capable of producing opiate-like sedation, pleasure and pain relief.
In addition to acting upon the brain’s opioid receptors, mitragynine in particular appears to act upon other receptor systems to produce stimulant effects. In fact, low doses of kratom strains high in mitragynine content can produce significant energy, sociability and focus. (Counterintuitively, lower doses of kratom are actually stronger with respect to stimulating effects.)
What the FDA Has to Say About Kratom’s Opioid-Like Effects
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”) has taken the position that kratom does, in fact, contain opioid compounds (as opposed to just producing opioid-like effects). The FDA’s conclusion has been criticized, however, as it was based on a novel computer-modeling method typically not used for classifying drugs.
In any event, with respect to legality and availability, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s (“DEA”) position is probably more important, and they have yet to decide whether kratom will be banned at the federal level.
Safety: Can You Overdose on Kratom?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) claims that between 2016 and 2017 there were 91 deaths involving kratom. Industry experts are skeptical of this number, however, because all but seven involved the presence of other fatal drugs like fentanyl. And for the seven “kratom-only” incidents, it cannot be ruled out that other undetected substances contributed, and/or that the kratom itself was adulterated.
Additionally, other formal studies have found far fewer deaths involving kratom. The National Poison Data System (the data warehouse for the U.S.’s 55 poison control centers) found just 11 deaths associated with kratom between 2011 and 2017, and nine of those 11 involved other drugs and medicines, including fentanyl, cocaine, benzodiazepines, alcohol, caffeine and diphenhydramine (an antihistamine).
Evidence of Adverse Reactions to Kratom vs. Opioids
Regardless of the precise number of incidents involving kratom, the number pales in comparison to deaths from opioids, which are now at nearly 50,000 per year in the U.S.
Also, though further research is needed, studies in animals have suggested that high doses of kratom are far less likely than high doses of opioids to be fatal.
Is Kratom Addictive Like Opiates?
While essentially any substance that produces opiate-like feelings may cause dependency if abused, studies suggest that kratom poses a lower risk of addiction than “true” opioids like methadone. But in one study of people who used kratom heavily and consistently for more than six months, the subjects exhibited some withdrawal symptoms similar to opiate withdrawal symptoms.
In any event, it appears that “addiction” would require consistent, heavy and prolonged use, and that the risks could be avoided or minimized with careful moderation.
Is Kratom Effective for Treating Opiate Withdrawal?
The information above all begs the question: Is kratom effective for treating opiate withdrawals? The answer is that we just don’t know. Anecdotes abound, but there simply have not been any clinical trials in humans to determine whether kratom is safe or effective as a treatment for opioid addiction.