Kratom tea is becoming increasingly popular. Is it a health remedy—or a risk to steer clear of?

Isadora Baum
September 13, 2018

What is Kratom tea? This buzzy tea is made from the leaves of the kratom tree, which is native to Southeast Asia. Kratom is thought to act as a stimulant in smaller doses. In larger amounts, it has a sedative effect. Some people even use kratom to ease symptoms of opiate withdrawal. It's marketed as a "natural high" and is illegal in many countries.

Kratom tea has also been in the news lately because a Florida mother recently filed a lawsuit claiming that her daughter suffered permanent brain damage due to her kratom tea habit. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just announced that they sent warning letters to two sellers of kratom tea for making health claims that are not supported by research.

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While there’s no denying the wellness benefits of green or black tea, with kratom tea, think twice before trying it. Here's everything you need to know.

Kratom tea effects

Kratom tea is made by brewing the leaves of the kratom tree or mixing kratom leaf powder into boiling water. “The leaves contain mitragynine, a chemical that evidence suggests works similarly to opioid pain relievers such as morphine and codeine,” says California-based nutritionist Maggie Moon, MS, RD. Kratom can also be chewed, smoked, or taken as a supplement in capsules.

What are the effects of using kratom? It supposedly works as a treatment for pain, anxiety, and depression, and it’s been heavily marketed as a "safe" plant-based treatment for these conditions. People also use kratom for its stimulating effects to heighten sexual performance, improve mood, and enhance physical endurance. “There is insufficient evidence to back up any of these claims,” says Moon.

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As for easing opiate withdrawal, not enough evidence exists to determine if it is effective either, says Moon. The FDA announcement also states that no substantial studies show that kratom can help with opiate withdrawal symptoms.

To date, "there have been no adequate and well-controlled scientific studies involving the use of kratom as a treatment for opioid use withdrawal or other diseases in humans. Nor have there been studies on how kratom, when combined with other substances, may impact the body, its dangers, potential side effects, or interactions with other drugs," the FDA stated on September 11.

Kratom tea dangers

“There is research that doses of five to eight grams can lead to side effects such as nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, loss of muscle coordination, increased urination, dizziness, constipation, rapid heart rate, sedation, sweating, and dry mouth,” Moon says.

The effects in larger kratom doses can be more serious, and these include a strong euphoric high, anxiety, slowed breathing, changes in heart rate, constipation, seizures, coma, and even death. For these reasons, the FDA issued a previous statement in November 2017 warning people to stay away from products containing kratom.

What’s more, individual case studies have linked kratom use to seizure and coma and addiction and hypothyroid, and the FDA has reports of 44 deaths linked to kratom products, as of February 2018.

Effects are worsened when kratom is taken with other drugs. “The FDA noted that kratom was being laced with other opioids like hydrocodone and has been associated with liver damage and withdrawal symptoms,” Moon adds.

As for the link to brain damage alleged by the mom in Florida, Moon says that she doesn't know enough about the case to comment or make a conjecture. However, but the FDA does seem to suggest potential for brain damage and recommends avoidance.

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Is kratom legal?

Kratom is legal in the United States, but it’s marked as an alternative medicine and is unregulated, meaning the FDA cannot monitor the purity of the herbs being used.

Kratom can be found in stores that sell supplements in the U.S. under a number of names: Biak-Biak, Cratom, Gratom, Ithang, Kakuam, Katawn, Kedemba, Ketum, Krathom, Kraton, Kratum, Madat, Maeng Da Leaf, Mambog, Mitragynine, Mitragynine Extract, Thang, and Thom. It can be purchased online, as kratom powder or kratom capsules, with many supplements listing the kratom dosage as 500 mg. A physician can’t prescribe it.

Kratom is a controlled substance in 16 countries, and though it is legal in America, five U.S. states ban it (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, and Wisconsin).

Even if you live in a place where it’s available, you’ll want to avoid it for now. “Given the FDA advisory regarding the risks of using kratom, people should not be taking this substance or any product that contains it,” Moon says.