Nearly a third of people who use the herbal supplement kratom develop symptoms of withdrawal and tolerance that could be signs of kratom use disorder (KUD), according to a small survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Withdrawal symptoms included gastrointestinal upset, restlessness, anxiety, irritability and fatigue.
Kratom comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in Southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries as a natural stimulant and pain reliever. An estimated two million Americans use kratom to self-treat their pain, depression, anxiety and addiction.
NIDA researchers recruited 129 past and current kratom users in the U.S. to participate in the online survey, asking them about their symptoms and demographic information.
The study findings, recently published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, found that over half of kratom users showed no signs of addiction. But 29.5% met the diagnostic criteria for KUD, such as increased use, tolerance, withdrawal, unsuccessful attempts to quit, and craving. Most reported KUD symptoms that were mild or moderate, with about one in four with KUD having severe symptoms.
Nearly 10% of participants also reported “psychosocial impairments,” such as decreases in social, occupational, or recreational activities because of their kratom use.
“As assessed here, tolerance and withdrawal are primary KUD features rather than psychosocial impairments. As kratom is often used among persons with a myriad of health conditions, clinicians should be aware of and assess for kratom use and withdrawal,” wrote lead author Kirsten Smith, PhD, who heads much of the kratom research at NIDA.
Federal health officials have long taken a dim view of kratom and made unsuccessful attempts to ban it. In 2018, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, claimed that kratom was an opioid, addictive, and should not be used to treat any medical condition.
“Kratom use disorder” is a relatively new diagnosis and does not appear often in medical literature. One of the first references to it is in a 2019 study that called kratom an “emerging public health threat.” Researchers said healthcare providers need to be aware that kratom use was “typically accompanied by increasing tolerance and dependence making it highly problematic.”
A kratom advocate said the new NIDA study shows the risk of kratom addiction is low and that symptoms are often mild.
“I thought the results of this research were particularly interesting because of the growing number of addiction recovery centers expanded their service-for-hire to include kratom use disorder (KUD) and characterizes this condition as mirroring opioid use disorder (OUD) that requires intensive drug interventions of different substances,” said Mac Haddow, a lobbyist and Senior Fellow for the American Kratom Association, which represents kratom vendors and consumers.
“Importantly, the study concludes that tolerance of kratom over time, and withdrawal from that level of dependence are the primary outcomes rather than psychosocial impairments that are largely debilitating among drug addictions. The study also recognizes that kratom continues to be a harm reduction alternative for those suffering from polydrug use addiction issues and that accounts for its increasing use as the drug overdose crisis deepens in the U.S.”
Kratom is often used as a treatment for addiction. A 2016 PNN survey of over 6,400 kratom users found that nearly 12% used it to reduce their cravings for alcohol or opioids. Nine out of ten said kratom was “very effective” at treating their substance use disorder. And over 98% of all respondents don’t believe kratom is harmful or dangerous.