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Is Kratom an opiate? The short answer is no. The alkaloids in Kratom can mimic the effects of traditional opiates but is not an opiate itself, but rather a partial opioid agonist.
Partial opioid agonists affect the same opioid receptors in the brain but do so in a much different fashion than opiates such as Opiates (i.e. Heroin or Morphine) or Opioids (i.e. Oxycodone or Methadone). Kratom allows you to experience similar sedating and euphoric effects of these substances, but without most of the negative side effects such as addiction.
In this article, we’ll explain the science behind Kratom. In doing so we’ll dispel commonly held myths around this increasingly popular, but widely misunderstood plant.
The Opioid Crisis
In recent years, a growing trend among those addicted to drugs such as heroin or oxycodone is to turn to the leaves of a Southeast Asian evergreen tree called Mitragyna Speciosa (otherwise known as Kratom). Users claim the alkaloids in Kratom ease the withdrawal symptoms experienced coming off Opioid drugs.
This leaves many to believe Kratom is an opioid itself, which can quickly put most off the plant – and for good reason, as the United States is in the midst of an opioid crisis. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose (including prescription opioids and heroin)1
- Deaths from prescription opioids—drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone—have more than quadrupled since 199972
- 6 out of 10 drug overdose deaths involve an opioid3
- The number of prescription opioids sold to pharmacies, hospitals, and doctors’ offices nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010 45 yet there had not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans reported.67
— Addiction Medicine (@ASAMorg) October 26, 2017
Down below we’ll explain why Kratom isn’t an opioid, why it can be a safe, natural alternative to medication such as opiates or opioids.
What Are Opiates? What are Opioids?
Before we dive into the science behind Kratom, let’s’ first set a foundation and talk about opiates, opium, and opioids, as these terms are typically intermingled with little understanding between their differences.
Opiates and Opium – Opiates are natural substances derived from the poppy seed. The alkaloids in these seeds are called Opium, which activates opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other areas of the body. As these receptors are activated, the following effects occur in the body:
- Pain signals are inhibited from the spinal cord to the brain (leading to feelings of sedation pain-relief)
- Dopamine (pleasure and reward chemicals) are released in the limbic system of the brain (leading to feelings of euphoria)
- The brainstem (which controls automatic functions of the body) slows breathing down and further reduces sensations of pain.
Natural opiates include:
Opioid Agonists – Opioid agonists are synthetic drugs that activate the same opioid receptors as opiates. There are two types of opioids agonists: full and partial.
As the name implies, full opioid agonists fully bind to opioid receptors, resulting in the complete effect you would receive with natural opiates such as heroin. Full opioid agonists include:
We’ll define what partial opioid agonists are later in this article.
The Problem With Opiates & Opioids
The body produces endogenous opioids such as endorphins to activate the body’s opioid receptors naturally. However, drugs such as morphine or heroin act as exogenous opioids, attaching to these receptors like a screw drilled into a socket.
With long-term use, the body decreases its natural production of opioids, leading to a dependence on the drugs to simply maintain normal bodily functioning. Long-term use also leads to increased tolerance of opioids, as the body requires higher and higher dosages to reach the same effect.
If opioids aren’t consumed by this person, withdrawal symptoms occur which include muscle aches, restlessness, anxiety, runny nose, sweating, insomnia, yawning, nausea, vomiting, and more.
This is what opioids do to the human mind and body
— Sam Ghali (@EM_RESUS) October 27, 2017
Is Kratom an Opiate?
Kratom leaves are comprised of over 20 different psychoactive Alkaloids, which are central to the plants sedating, euphoric effects. The alkaloids in Kratom are partial opioid agonists.
Unlike opiates or full opioid agonists, partial opioid agonists partially binds to opioid receptors. They lead to similar effects as opiates or opioids but do so without many of the negative side effects such as their addictive qualities. Documentary filmmaker Chris Bell, a long-term Kratom user, describes how Kratom works compared to traditional opioids:
Kratom has alkaloids that work like opioids. They attach to opioid receptors but not in the same way. If you look at oxycontin, when it attaches to opioid receptor, it’s stuck in there like a screw. With Kratom, it sort of drifts around the top of the opioid receptor, it doesn’t attach nearly as hard. They say that opioids attach one thousand times greater to the opioid receptor than anything found in nature, and Kratom is found in nature.8
Opiate.com has a great analogy – think of partial opioid agonists as you would caffeine free diet coke – it gives the user the same feelings of coke, but without most of the downsides of the real thing. This is why Kratom is so popular among those who struggle with opiate or opioid addiction. They’re able to use Kratom powder to partially occupy opioid receptors lessening withdrawal symptoms. As this occurs, it gives their body time to reset its body chemistry from their drug addiction.
Kratom has a much different chemical structure from traditional opioids. As is the case, it binds to the opioid receptors in a much different way. When traditional opioids bind to opioid receptors, they recruit a protein called β-arrestin. Studies have shown that β-arrestin pathways are linked to negative side effects associated with opioids such as constipation, tolerance, and respiratory depression.9
What’s exciting about Kratom is it activates opioid receptors without recruiting β-arrestin. In a recent article in Scientific American, Susruta Majumdar, a chemist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center talked about opioid receptors and the alkaloids in Kratom:
Think of this receptor as the ignition to a “hybrid car,” Varadi explains, and the opioids that bind to it as keys. A typical opioid such as morphine turns on the “electric engine,” and that leads to a desired effect like pain relief. But it also starts up the “gas engine,” causing negative side effects. The mitragynine molecules from kratom seem to activate mostly the “good” systems, leaving behind the unwanted effects yet keeping pain relief.10
This is why Kratom is gaining so much popular. It has all the positive aspects of opioids and opiates but without the crippling downsides. You’re able to use a natural substitute to synthetic drugs to alleviate pain, support a balanced mood, and even to get off hard drugs like heroin.
- “Opioid Overdose.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Aug. 2017, www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html.
- CDC. Wide-ranging online data for epidemiologic research (WONDER). Atlanta, GA: CDC, National Center for Health Statistics; 2016. Available at http://wonder.cdc.gov
- Rudd RA, Seth P, David F, Scholl L. Increases in Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths — United States, 2010–2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. ePub: 16 December 2016. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6550e1.
- US Department of Justice. Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS). Springfield, VA: US Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); 2011.
- Paulozzi LJ, Jones CM, Mack KA, Rudd RA. Vital Signs: Overdoses of Prescription Opioid Pain Relievers—United States, 1999—2008. MMWR 2011; 60(43):1487-1492.
- Chang H, Daubresse M, Kruszewski S, et al. Prevalence and treatment of pain in emergency departments in the United States, 2000 – 2010. Amer J of Emergency Med 2014; 32(5): 421-31.
- Daubresse M, Chang H, Yu Y, Viswanathan S, et al. Ambulatory diagnosis and treatment of nonmalignant pain in the United States, 2000 – 2010. Medical Care 2013; 51(10): 870-878.
- Bell, Chris. “Joe Rogan Experience #876 – Chris Bell”. The Joe Rogan Experience. Podcast audio, Nov. 21, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-9J5-KCHCU.
- Porter-Stransky, Kirsten A., and David Weinshenker. “Arresting the Development of Addiction: The Role of β-Arrestin 2 in Drug Abuse.” Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 361.3 (2017): 341-348.
- David Kroll, Chemical & Engineering News. “Recreational Drug Kratom Hits the Same Brain Receptors as Strong Opioids.” Scientific American, 8 June 2016, www.scientificamerican.com/article/recreational-drug-kratom-hits-the-same-brain-receptors-as-strong-opioids/.