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Is Kratom an Opioid? Everything You Need To Know

Written by Theresa Valenzky

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD

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Last Updated - 9/26/2023

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Updated 09/26/2023

No, kratom is not an opioid or opiate. Commercialized kratom is a derivative of a plant found in Southeast Asia. Traditionally used to elevate mood and energy, this medicinal plant also interacts with opioid receptors and has the potential for abuse similar to that of opioids and opiates.

While kratom is not chemically identical to opiates originating from the poppy plant, two compounds found within kratom, mitragynine and 7-α-hydroxymitragynine, interact with opioid receptors in the brain. The interaction creates opioid-like effects, such as decreased pain, sedation and euphoria, and can increase tolerance and the potential for withdrawal symptoms.

What Is Kratom?

Kratom is created by processing the Mitragyna speciosa tropical evergreen tree leaves. Kratom is ingested orally by chewing, swallowing or brewing into tea. It is often sold with the warning “Not for human consumption.” This practice is similar to how synthetic marijuana (spice) or bath salts were marketed to avoid regulations. The effects of kratom use vary depending on the type and quantity of use and the individual’s tolerance. Some side effects include increased sociability and energy, sedation, euphoria and decreased pain sensation, among others.

Traditional Uses of Kratom

As a plant native to Southeast Asia, kratom has traditionally been used as an herbal drug. Thai and Malaysian laborers and farmers often took the drug for its stimulant properties to help them in their daily jobs. They chewed the leaves for energy and to harness the drug’s analgesic properties to relieve aching muscles. Because of its pain-relieving properties, kratom was also taken as an opium substitute. 

Alkaloids in Kratom

Kratom contains more than 25 alkaloids, which are naturally occurring chemicals that contain nitrogen. Two of these alkaloids, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, are primarily responsible for kratom’s psychoactive effects. These alkaloids are active at the brain’s mu opioid receptors, giving kratom analgesic properties.

Mitragynine, in particular, acts as a stimulant at low doses but like an opioid at higher doses. This occurs because mitragynine binds to dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine receptors at low doses, creating a stimulant effect. However, at higher doses, mitragynine binds to opioid receptors to produce pain-relieving and sedative effects.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are drugs that bind to opioid receptors in the central nervous system. An opiate is a natural or synthetic compound that is made from or made to mimic the effects of opioids found in the poppy plant. Early opioids were created from the poppy plant; however, modern opioids include synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids as well.

Opioids can be highly addictive, whether prescribed by a doctor or purchased on the street. Opioids include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, heroin and fentanyl. Fentanyl, in particular, has made headlines over the past several years due to the frequency and number of overdoses it caused.

Does Kratom Contain Opioid Substances?

Kratom does not contain opioids, but two of the main effective compounds in kratom activate opioid receptors. This, in turn, may activate the brain’s reward system, leading to a flood of feel-good chemicals in the brain, including dopamine. Besides dopamine receptors, the alkaloids in kratom have been shown to activate several other brain receptors for opioids, norepinephrine, acetylcholine and serotonin. 

Kratom and Opioid Receptors

Kratom impacts opioid receptors in the brain at high doses. Opioid receptors are responsible for the analgesic effects produced by opioids and kratom. As a result, the intended effects and unintended side effects of high-dose kratom can be similar to opioid use, including the reduction of pain signals, euphoria, sedation, constipation and loss of appetite. Similarly, withdrawal symptoms from kratom can mimic opioid withdrawal, including nausea, sweating, muscle aches, insomnia and irritability.

Kratom’s Effect on Dopamine and Serotonin

Kratom not only activates opioid receptors; it can also trigger other neurotransmitter receptors in the brain, like receptors for dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is heavily involved in the brain’s reward system, which is responsible for the addictive potential of many drugs. Conversely, the drug’s activity at serotonin receptors may be responsible for what kratom users report as easing pain, anxiety and low mood.

Potential Benefits of Kratom

Many people take kratom not to get high but to achieve benefit from the drug. Although kratom has not been studied or approved for use as a dietary supplement or medication, some people take the drug to try to treat other medical conditions. These can include pain and addiction to other substances. 

Kratom for Alternative Pain Management

At high doses, kratom activates the pain-relieving opioid receptors of the brain and spinal cord. Because of this effect on the central nervous system’s mu opioid receptors, kratom has a long history of use for alternative pain management. This stems from its use in traditional medicine as a replacement for opium for pain relief when none was available. 

Kratom for Energy

At low doses, kratom stimulates the central nervous system. As a result, kratom has long been used in traditional medicine as an energy booster for laborers. Its impact on neurotransmitter receptors like norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine may be responsible for these effects.

Kratom for Withdrawal and Addiction Treatment

Because of its activity at opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord, some people rely on kratom to help wean off other opioids. This is in the hope that kratom’s actions at the opioid receptors may stave off or lessen some withdrawal symptoms.

Potential Dangers of Using Kratom

There are multiple sources of danger to consider when deciding to use kratom. The first danger is the lack of regulation. Because kratom is often sold as “not intended for human consumption” and unregulated by the FDA, it is not standardized, nor is its production guaranteed to have basic health or hygiene regulations in place. In 2018, an outbreak of Salmonella was linked to using kratom products. Its interaction with other drugs is largely unstudied, and kratom has contributed to at least 11 deaths. Additionally, because kratom mimics the effects of opiates by binding to opioid receptors, users may crave increasingly larger amounts, resulting in more frequent use, which can lead to other drug use.

If you or a loved one struggles with kratom or other opioid use, contact Orlando Recovery Center. Our individualized treatment programs can assist patients with finding a healthier life in recovery.

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Trakulsrichai, Satariya; Sathirakul, Korbtham; Auparakkitanon, Saranya; et al. “Pharmacokinetics of mitragynine in man.” Drug Design, Development and Therapy, April 29, 2015. Accessed August 19, 2023.

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