What is kratom and what are its effects?

The Southeast Asian drug with opiate-like effects is becoming a fixture in wellness drinks, but there are risks involved

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The Southeast Asian drug with opiate-like effects is becoming a fixture in wellness drinks, but there are risks involved

By Jack Ramage24 Apr 2024
5 mins read time
5 mins read time

“It’s different to other drugs, to be honest with you,” Lewis*, who first experimented with kratom during his second year at university, tells woo. “When you look at the plant, especially if it’s just been ground up and shoved into a bag, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for weed, but the effects aren’t the same. At small doses, at least, it’s a light and mellow high. I can’t speak for larger doses, personally, but I know that it can become quite the sedative.”

Lewis was introduced to the drug by a friend who claimed it would alleviate his back pain. Soon after, he started using it daily in small doses, ingesting capsules of ground kratom, to improve his mood and focus, “the same way you’d take any other nootropic,” he says. Despite quitting after a few weeks due to concerns about dependency, he wonders why it's not more widely recognised. “I’d mention it to my friends and the majority didn’t have a clue what it was. It’s wild, considering that most university students are aware of pretty much every drug under the sun. Kratom, however, seems to have slipped under the radar.”

That said, while the plant might not be known to the general public, if you’re ever dipped into the world of alternative medicine or supplements, chances are you’ve encountered kratom. Derived from the leaves of the Mitragyna speciosa tree, this psychoactive plant has a rich history in Southeast Asia. For centuries, kratom has been an integral part of traditional medicine and cultural practices in countries including Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Its effects are somewhat of an anomaly compared to other substances: at lower doses, it's believed to act as a stimulant, enhancing alertness, energy and sociability. However, at higher doses, past six milligrams, it transitions into a sedative, often used to address anxiety, manage pain, and induce relaxation.

“I'm approaching this from a social science perspective rather than a health professional’s perspective,” John Corkey, a senior lecturer in Pharmacy Practice at the University of Hertfordshire, tells woo. Despite his modesty, he’s well-versed in the effects and history of kratom, having published an extensive paper on the substance back in 2019. “It’s clear that due to its sedative effects, it’s also used to treat drug dependency, for instance, those facing opioid addiction,” he continues.

According to his paper, kratom isn’t just used to help people treat their addictions – and the plant has numerous medical benefits. His paper goes on to state that pain relief was the most common use for kratom, closely followed by mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Kratom is classed as a novel psychoactive substance,” Corkey continues. “Although it’s not particularly ‘novel’, as it’s been used for decades, if not centuries. In Southeast Asia, where the plant originates, it’s been used for a long time to help people wean themselves off opioids. While in North America, it’s wisely used by people with chronic pain conditions – offering an alternative to painkillers that can be addictive, and arguably, more dangerous. It's seen as a safer and more natural alternative.”

Sounds perfect, right? Well, there’s a catch. Kratom isn’t without its dangers, and has, on very rare occasions, led to death. The first reported death in the UK from kratom started back in 2008 – the decade where “kratom first emerged in popularity across the UK,” Corkery notes. More recent deaths have occurred in the US too.

Although these instances represent the most extreme cases, they are still noteworthy. And it’s not just fatalities that kratom users should be wary of. Corkery notes that a colleague of his, who is also a practising psychiatrist, encountered several clients who had “problems” with Kratom, including dependency and other complications.

As with every harm reduction advice, you don’t want to combine it with other drugs. The key is also to start low and go slow
Katya Kowalski, Head of Operations at Volteface

The majority of these problems, however, stem from mixing kratom with other types of drugs. “The issues I’ve known associated with kratom have come from mixing with substances: opioids, methadone, buprenorphine, but also other central nervous system depressants, like benzodiazepines,” he adds. It’s a view echoed by Katya Kowalski, from the drugs policy think-tank Volteface. “As with every harm reduction advice, you don’t want to combine it with other drugs. The key is also to start low and go slow,” she tells woo.

Yet, despite these dangers, there’s been a notable rise in the commercialisation of kratom in recent years. This is particularly true in North America, where in certain areas, kratom is sold everywhere from gas stations to corner shops. Even in the six states where kratom is banned, it remains widely available online and in vape shops, despite warnings from federal authorities.

Kratom has even managed to trickle its way into the wellness drinks market, too. Enter New Brew: a new drink that contains small amounts of kratom and kava (another psychoactive plant indigenous to Asia), it’s branded as “the first non-alcoholic beverage with effects you can feel.” While this is not the first time kratom has taken shape in drinkable form – some young Muslims in Thailand have, for a while now, been consuming a drink called ‘4X100’, a concoction of a kratom, caffeine or codeine-containing cough syrup – New Brew is one of the first to hit the US drinks market, advertised through a ‘wellness’ lens.

The sleek green website, presumably there to promote feelings of wellness, boasts that the drink can increase focus and relaxation, enhance your mood, and more. It also notes that these plants "have been misrepresented and misunderstood through sensationalist headlines" too. Which, to be fair to them, they have – which is why approaching this drink with some balance and pragmatism is key.

While there are certainly more dangerous substances in drinkable form out there, such as the majority of alcoholic drinks, for instance, it still doesn’t mean that kratom and kava are risk-free. Alongside kratom, kava has its risks too. Responsibly, the website also warns that New Brew shouldn't be consumed every day, that first-timers should drink it slowly, and that the drink is strictly for adults only. Although the active ingredients in each can are fairly low, it’s up for debate whether customers would heed these warnings.

Experiences of kratom online are a mixed bag, too. Taking a look on TikTok, the search term “krat0m” (the correctly spelled name has been banned from the platform) brings up thousands of videos. Some promote the positive effects of kratom on their mood and provide how-to videos on how to take the plant responsibly, while others share their warnings about the plant and their experiences of addiction.

Some TikTokers have even called out New Brew directly, advising their viewers not to try the drink, such as the creator Mr Impulsive and pharmacist Jackie Daisy. And it's also worth noting that a similar US-based krava and kratom drink, Feel Free, has even led users to create the subreddit ‘Quittingfeelfree’, offering advice for those addicted to the drink.

So, with all the discourse surrounding them, why do people still gravitate towards these drinks? According to Kowalski, “it links with the trend that young people are looking for alternative forms of intoxication. There’s been a rise in pop culture around people seeking [substances aside from] cigarettes, alcohol, and weed.”

Her views are backed up by research, too. According to the Crime Survey and CSEW (Crime Survey for England and Wales), illicit drug use has declined from the peak of 30% at the turn of the century to 17.6% in 2023, a trend that seems to apply to most drugs except for ketamine.

Alcohol and smoking have also decreased, with many opting for sober lifestyles or seeking alternative and healthier ways of intoxication. While it’s important to not make direct comparisons between surveys, the numbers clearly show a shift in the way we are approaching drugs.

Kratom fits this box, Kowalski argues. “Perhaps not out of sober curiosity, because it’s clearly psychoactive, but people are becoming less interested in the effects of alcohol and want to try something new and different. A drink is a sociable form in which you can take something.”

“Drinking a beverage is associated with alcohol – widely accepted in society. Smoking a joint or even a cigarette, or taking a pill, these other modes of drug administration come with a level of stigma, and they're not necessarily socially acceptable.” It’s for this reason that drinks are appealing, particularly those marketed as ‘natural’. This trend extends to the rise in CBD drinks in the UK as well, Kowalski adds.

With an estimated 10-16 million people in the United States using kratom, it’s evident that this drug isn’t going anywhere soon. The legality of this plant is uncertain, as are its effects and long-term implications. It's not FDA-approved in the US, and in the UK, the plant is banned under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. Some research suggests that Kratom use has few downsides, while others highlight its negative implications.

In summary, it’s a mixed bag. And if you want to try kratom yourself, we’re not stopping you. But at least you’re armed with the nitty-gritty details and knowledge before you try. And don’t be fooled into thinking that just because something is natural it comes without risks: sugar is natural, weed is natural, shrooms are natural, hell, even cocaine is natural (when you consider that its active ingredient is pulled from the coca plant) – just because something comes from the ground doesn’t mean you should indulge in it excessively. If you are going to try kratom, make sure to go slow, know your intentions, and be aware of the risks involved.

*Names have been changed for anonymity