The overprescription of powerful opioid drugs to treat everything from back pain to arthritis has resulted in an unprecedented crisis of overdose and death in the U.S. Even when taken as directed, prescription opioids can lead to addiction as well as tolerance, which means you need an increasingly stronger dose to get the pain-relieving effects. Physical dependence, in which you suffer withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking the drugs, is common.1
In fact, more than 91 Americans fatally overdose on opioids every day.2 The statistic includes prescription opioids, heroin and fentanyl, but many of the deaths stem from prescription drug use. Of the more than 33,000 Americans killed by opioids in 2015, nearly half of them involved a prescription for the drugs.3
However, rather than cracking down on the prescription opioids that are the root of the problem, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is going after a natural plant called kratom (Mitragyna speciosa), even going so far as to issue a warning that consumer groups say is patently false.
FDA Warns of 'Deadly Risks' Associated With Kratom
Kratom is a plant native to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, which has become popular as an opioid alternative in the U.S. Leaves from the kratom tree have been used for pain relief for hundreds of years, but scientists now know they contain compounds that target the brain similarly to opioids, helping to relieve pain.
Unlike opioid drugs, however, which can cause slowed breathing, or respiratory depression that's deadly (respiratory depression is the leading cause of opioid overdose deaths), kratom does not appear to cause this effect.
In an animal study published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, researchers noted that, compared to morphine, kratom use did not result in tolerance and physical dependence or respiratory depression, suggesting it "might represent a promising new generation of novel pain relievers."4
In short, it appears the plant may be safer than opioids for pain relief and could even act as a tool to help those suffering from opioid withdrawal. In November 2017, however, the FDA issued a public health advisory regarding risks associated with kratom use, suggesting that its usage could "expand the opioid epidemic" and stating:5
"Calls to U.S. poison control centers regarding kratom have increased tenfold from 2010 to 2015, with hundreds of calls made each year. The FDA is aware of reports of 36 deaths associated with the use of kratom-containing products. There have been reports of kratom being laced with other opioids like hydrocodone.
The use of kratom is also associated with serious side effects like seizures, liver damage and withdrawal symptoms … Before it can be legally marketed for therapeutic uses in the U.S., kratom's risks and benefits must be evaluated as part of the regulatory process for drugs that Congress has entrusted the FDA with."