Kratom: The Potential Solution to the Opioid Epidemic?

The opioid epidemic is a growing concern in the United States and other parts of the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 47,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2017 alone. The increasing number of deaths from opioid overdose has led researchers to look for alternative treatments that could help in treating opioid dependence and reducing opioid-related deaths.

One such alternative treatment is kratom, which comes from the leaves of a tropical tree originating in Southeast Asia. A new study led by researchers at the University of Florida (UF) found that kratom could be a promising treatment option for opioid dependence. In a controlled animal study, UF scientists found that kratom delivered significant pain-relieving benefits, reduced opioid withdrawal symptoms, and caused minimal respiratory depression.

Kratom has been used by people in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. In Southeast Asia, the leaves are boiled to make a tea that has been reported to have both stimulant and opioid-like properties. Despite the fact that kratom has been used safely in Southeast Asia, it has been controversial in the Western world due to concerns about its safety and potential for abuse.

In the UF study, the researchers evaluated lyophilized kratom tea (LKT), which contains more than 20 alkaloids, or organic compounds, in varying levels. LKT is considered one of the truest forms of kratom and is most similar to the traditional preparation. When LKT was administered to animal models, the researchers found that kratom produced significant pain-relieving effects that were mediated through the mu-opioid receptor.

The researchers also found that kratom had benefits in treating opioid withdrawal, a severe condition resulting from opioid dependence. Current medications for opioid withdrawal syndrome include methadone and buprenorphine, but these drugs have limitations and side effects. When morphine-dependent animals were given LKT in varying doses, the researchers found that LKT significantly reduced withdrawal symptoms and did not show the side effects associated with the current medications.

One of the most significant benefits of kratom is that it does not cause respiratory depression, which is a common side effect of opioid medications. Respiratory depression is a major concern with opioid medications as it can slow down a person’s breathing rate and even lead to death. The experiments conducted by UF showed that LKT did not induce respiratory depression, reducing the likelihood of an opioid-like overdose death.

In conclusion, the study by the University of Florida is a significant step forward in understanding the potential benefits of kratom as a treatment option for opioid dependence. While federal regulators are still evaluating the safety of the plant, the UF researchers are contributing data through multiple kratom studies. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has awarded UF two multimillion-dollar grants to examine kratom’s individual alkaloids and investigate the different ways it is consumed.