A new study is raising troubling questions about the safety of the herbal supplement kratom. The supplement is primarily sold through smoke shops and supplements websites which advertise it as a way to relieve pain and anxiety. According to the American Kratom Association, there are 3 million to 5 million users of kratom in the United States.
Kratom, also known by its scientific name Mitragyna speciosa, is a plant that grows in Asia, particularly in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The leaves of the plant are typically consumed by crushing them and using them to brew a tea. The supplement seems to have grown increasingly popular among Americans over the past decade. However, the safety of the supplement has long been in dispute.
According to the new study, recently published in the journal Clinical Toxicology, calls to U.S. poison centers regarding kratom exposure increased 52-fold from 2011 to 2017, rising from just 13 calls to 682 calls. In total, there were more than 1,800 calls related to kratom exposure made during the time period studied. About 65 percent of those calls were made during 2016 and 2017.
The researchers analyzed information from the National Poison Data System for the study. Their findings were alarming. Over half of the cases identified in the study showed the exposed person experienced moderate or serious health effects. Roughly 33 percent of the cases required admission to a health care facility. Eleven of the patients died.
The study also turned up some interesting information that raised some troubling questions. While almost all of the exposed patients were over 20 years old, 2.5 percent of the calls were related to kratom exposure in children under age 12. Most of those were for children younger than 2 years old, with seven of the cases occurring in newborns. Five experienced symptoms of withdrawal due to exposure in the womb, indicating that kratom crosses the placenta during pregnancy, while one was reportedly exposed through breastfeeding.
The researchers are now calling for the FDA to regulate kratom in order to ensure consistency in the quality, purity and concentration of the product available to consumers. There are no FDA-approved uses for kratom, but because it is sold as a supplement, it is not regulated like prescription drugs. Last year, FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb commented on the matter, saying, “There are no proven medical uses for kratom and the FDA strongly discourages the public from consuming kratom.”