Herbal Supplement ‘Kratom’ Used as Pain-Relieving Alternative, Receives Further Research Funding

Kratom, an herbal supplement of the caffeine family used to ward off pain for chronic pain conditions, has received large grants for further research. While many consumers claim the supplement can be enormously impactful in treating symptoms ranging from anxiety and depression to fatigue and mood elevation, there’s also controversy over the safety of the drug by regulators and the media. Recently, The University of Florida College of Pharmacy was awarded two grants from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the NIDA, that together provides the school with a total of almost $7 million dollars to investigate kratom’s alkaloid’s and ultimate effects.

Kratom’s Uses

Kratom is increasingly popular for a broader range of uses including for depression, mood improvement, recreational purposes, and in some medical contexts. Advocates claim it to be a more moderate alternative to stronger painkillers or even to alcohol, providing the slight buzz without the toxicity or health consequences. Sold as a dietary or herbal supplement, kratom is increasingly available in new ‘kratom bars’ that serve kratom teas rather than alcohol, or as a pill in some stores.

Concerns About the Supplement

In 2017, the Drug Enforcement Administration labeled kratom a “drug of concern” and the Food and Drug Administration banned the importation. The FDA cited concerns that kratom may sometimes be contaminated by heavy metals, as well as the slim possibility of death. It should be noted this statistic is relatively small (91 deaths out of 27,000 deaths due to opioid related overdoses) and typically only occurs when kratom is taken in conjunction with many other medications. While between 2011 and 2017, there were about 2,000 calls to the National Poison Center regarding kratom, this is a small percentage of the 15 million users in the country. This is not to say there is no cause for concern, but that it should be viewed in context. The substance also occasionally arrives in the US under the guise of other herbs, and this means it’s occasionally contaminated causing salmonella or doesn’t meet the health standards people typically expect due to lack of regulation. Various states and cities have their own prohibitions of the substance, though these laws are often ignored. The supplement is often sold anyway, but with lesser regulation.

New Research

The new research intends to sort out what assumptions about kratom’s effects are myth and what effects are due to improper production and regulation. Much of the knowledge of the drug is tainted by blurry information, because the herb is frequently used in conjunction with other drugs and because it was sold in the same spaces as marijuana and bath salts. Advocates believe with further research and movement towards human clinical trials in about five years, the FDA will discover more properties of kratom in isolation, when it’s not lumped in with other drugs or produced in questionable environments. The research seeks information on how kratom may serve as a pain reliever and alternative to stronger opioids. Researches also hope to determine effective dosages, possible side effects, and to learn about kratom’s interactions with other drugs.

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