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.

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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.”

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  • This article is irresponsible. How can you call 200 calls to the poison control center “a surge”? Do you realize there are 130,000 calls to the PCC in regards to OTC pain relievers such and tylenol and ibuprofen?

    Articles like this are damaging to good people who benefit from kratom. It’s a leaf that has proven itself safe for hundreds of years.

  • They are actually using an extraction of kratom at local pain clinics.. my guess is its just the Dea or governments way to continue screwing with people’s lives. Ever since obomacare went into effect it has continued making the health care system worse.

  • For the people who find relief with Kratom I’m sorry you may have to turn back to opioids for chronic pain. In my opinion the FDA is protecting the pharmaceutical companies by banning Kratom I imagine they are loosing money. What a sad world we live in.

  • It says it right there in the article, basically everyone who called poison control took too much or they mixed it with a bunch of other stuff. Figures, leave it to a few dimwits to ruin it for the bunch.

  • Yeah,Kratom is safe and if I didn’t take it to calm my anxiety I wouldn’t be able to be productive on the job site or in every day life..The rumors in the propaganda spread by the media is more dangerous than any drug especially a safe herb like Kratom

  • Kratom is not a synthetic marijuana. Please do research before posting hear say. If someone is abusing prescriptions and mixing with natural alternatives that’s their fault. Kratom does not kill people.

  • It has relieved alot of my pain helped with my depression and anxiety no longer an issue thats 3 big pharm drugs with nasty side effects i dont have to deal with. Im also a recovering addict and as long as im taking kratom my mind isnt wandering thinking about using i have a life with a brighter future with the help of kratom.

  • I’ve taken Kratom from a variety of vendors almost daily for nearly a year. I suffer from chronic back pain & Sciatica. And dental pain. Kratom alone CAN NOT kill a human being. I have had bloodwork done recently, and I’m perfectly fine based on the results. I just need more Sun/vitamin D. I got sick from Kratom 1 time due to a tainted batch (probably from a pollutant or mold-felt like food poisoning). Isolated incident. Never used that vendor again. Got a full refund immediately. I’ve used over 15 vendors. While quality varied, my health was never at risk. Do not mix it with other psychoactive drugs and you’ll be fine. The worst that will happen is nausea and a headache from an overdose. If kratom could kill me, I wouldn’t be here to write this. Kratom is a huge threat to BigPharma and an excuse to put more people in the legal system if it is Federally banned.

  • I’m seeing an increase in government propaganda toward demonizing what could well be a major breakthrough in the treatment of anxiety, pain, and substance withdrawal. The therapeutic qualities of this fantastic plant are disregarded for slanted reporting and scare tactics that are polluting the unknowing public. And this is purposeful. Pharmaceutical companies realize they may lose the almighty dollar because we are discovering a natural healing medicine with minimal sided effects and in its proper form, no unnatural chemicals. Government agencies like the CDC and FDA lie about the true nature of this plant in order to justify further control of our lives. Dramatic headlines with keywords “overdose, danger, and warning” do not describe kratom. In each example of negative reactions either other drugs were ingested or the kratom was in synthetic form with other chemicals added. In reality kratom’s effects are as mind altering as a cup of coffee. So study it if you will but report it fairly and accurately. The public is sick and tired of media twisting reality for government and corporate interests. If you want to report what kratom does, then try it and write your experience. I can assure you it will be quite different than the misinforation you currently pedal.

    • Thank you for your comment. You’re right on point. Scary buzzwords + unfamiliar plant = “Won’t someone please think of the children!” I took some Kratom an hour ago. For legitamite chronic hardcore pain. Kratom hasn’t made me go look for opiates again for a buzz. I held a vial of fentanyl in my hand and put it back where I found it. I turned down a chance to get codeine. All while in pain. I was able to have that self-control because Kratom was managining the pain well enough. Fearmongering articles are mentioning horrible withdrawls. I can get another script for Lyrica to treat my sciatica this week. Withdrawls from Lyrica/pregabalin are allegedly as bad as benzo withdrawls. Yet no one in the media is making an issue out of people who take pregabalin/lyrica long-term. I also have Flexeril and Meloxicam in the room. I doubt I’ll take either one again any time soon. I have gabapentin, lyrica’s cousin-it makes me dopey and not in any pleasant way. Makes physical therapy tough. Kratom has fewer side effects for me than the other drugs I listed. At worst I get constipated-take a docusate stool softener-and I’m fine again. People are getting their drug education from sensationalist news stories with clickbait headlines.

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