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The herbal supplement seemed like a miracle. Trying to kick an opioid addiction, the middle-aged man found he could soothe his cravings with a tea made from an Asian plant called kratom. It relieved his pain and made him more alert.

But when he combined it with a stimulant, it also gave him a seizure that landed him in a Boston-area emergency room.

Those kinds of stories are on the rise, according to a study published Thursday in a weekly report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of calls to poison centers about problems stemming from kratom ingestion have increased tenfold over five years, from 26 in 2010 to 263 in 2015.


In many cases called into the poison control centers, the side effects of kratom were relatively mild: nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, and agitation. But there was one death, of a patient who took other drugs along with kratom. Other patients who took multiple substances suffered serious side effects — like the middle-aged Massachusetts man whose story was reported as a case study in the journal Addiction.

Kratom comes from the glossy leaves of a tree grown in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Traditionally, in countries like Thailand, the leaves have been crushed or brewed into tea and used as a painkiller or a replacement for opioids. That’s because a few of the chemicals in the leaf stimulate the same brain receptors as drugs like oxycodone and morphine.


Kratom is marketed as a natural herbal supplement, but it can be highly addictive. And clinicians and researchers worry about opioid users who try to wean themselves off drugs using kratom rather than seeking professional help.

“They want to turn their lives around, they want to get back on track, they turn to kratom,” said Oliver Grundmann, a pharmacologist at the University of Florida who was not involved in the report on poison control calls. “They take more and more and more, but it doesn’t do the job, and then they turn to heroin.”

Little is known about the exact workings of kratom on the brain, but it seems to function as a stimulant at low doses and a depressant at high doses, said Royal Law, an epidemiologist at the CDC and a coauthor of the study in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The new tally of poison center calls comes as kratom has emerged as a significant public health concern.

Six states have banned kratom, and others are considering restrictions, according to the website of the American Kratom Association. The Food and Drug Administration has banned its importation. But it is still widely available online, in tea or capsule form. Some researchers have even found packets of it sold in gas stations.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has classified kratom as a drug of concern, but that does not prevent its sale or use. And the FDA has little power to regulate any supplement, including kratom, unless it starts causing widespread harm.

“Companies don’t have to prove that something is safe, the FDA has to prove that something is unsafe. But the FDA doesn’t do that,” said Dr. Edward Boyer, a toxicology specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital and UMass Memorial Health Center.

He and other specialists worry that what is being sold as kratom could also contain other potentially harmful substances. In fact, they say consumers run that risk with all dietary supplements, given how lightly the FDA regulates the industry.

“If you think you’re getting echinacea, you better guess again,” Boyer said. “It could be echinacea or it could be grass from the side of the highway. There’s nothing that prevents them from doing that.”

    • Mr. Turner,
      Can you elaborate on why you’ve concluded that Kratom was the cause of death? You have my deepest sympathy over the loss of your son, I have a child who has survived at least 2 opiate overdoses. I’ve never heard of kratom poisoning and the amount of kratom needed to cause death is unknown. But I’m sure increasingly higher doses every day over a long time period would be extremely destructive. It’s not candy. But it is certainly a great help to the very many people who responsibly and carefully consume it for many chronic conditions. It should not be banned but regulated for purity and good manufacturing standards. You can read about my experience here in the comments below. There are no easy answers as to why so many people are dying from addictions, few comforts for we who mourn them. I wish you peace and hopefully in time, acceptance of your loss, even though that sounds ridiculous as I wait for that phone call and live with fear of the worst.

  • I was in love with a heroin addict, but he claimed that was all behind him. He even found this miracle tea, kratom. It kept him away from the bad stuff and gave him more energy. Things were going well, we even had a baby on the way. But he would go into these fits of rage if he didn’t have enough kratom for the day. He kept needing more and more. One month, he spent nearly a thousand dollars on it. He would drink an entire container in a day. Eventually it wasn’t enough. He wound up in the hospital for a heroin overdose shortly before I gave birth. And because of all the vomiting, he had to be on a strict diet. I of course broke things off, but I still let him around our son, after all, I needed to work to provide for us. Just last night I found kratom, and within my sons reach. He’s nearly a year old now, and this drink, legal and you can’t drug test for it, has been a dangerous nightmare. It is highly addictive. He has neglected our son for it. He says it’s better than the alternative. But when it stops working so well, he looses his job, he looses his mind, he loosoles his money, and he looses his health, but worst of all, he looses his loved ones. Sure, when used correctly, it should and can help, but it’s no miracle cure. If you don’t have the right control, it can be just as bad as heroin. Thing is, he still thinks hes in control. Use safely with a buddy please.

  • Kratom saved me from prescription painkiller addiction. I am a retired educator with chronic nerve pain. I no longer need prescribed vicodin, oxycodone, tramadol thanks to responsible use of pure Kratom – 2 teaspoons in tea most mornings.
    THAT is why the pharma industry wants it banned and the FDA is shamelessly demonizing Kratom in the press.
    No side effects, increased tolerance to pain, elevated mood and energy. Kratom is akin to coffee. Sure any nutjob can take massive doses of anything and have trouble. This is a tree leaf with amazing qualities. It should be regulated for purity and good manufacturing standards. Don’t let them take it away!

  • I use kratom in lieu of opiate painkillers. It is not highly addictive; I have skipped doses when my pain is tolerable and felt absolutely no form of withdrawal. I was addicted to opiates for 5+ years, but with kratom I have achieved normalcy in my life again. Don’t fall for Big Pharmas hype: kratom can give you relief and improve your life.

  • Due to pain and depression, I had not worked for 9 years. I am a 55 year old grandmother. I was put on pain meds which helped but no energy and doses got higher. Didn’t like where it was going.
    I found out about Kratom from a friend w painful PMS. I now am back to work (light work) but work, no need for anti depressants and I am up and at em with my grandkids.
    Kratom has been a lifesaver for me in more ways than one.
    I am back to normal again.

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