Perhaps you’ve heard the name mentioned in passing, or have a couple of friends who have talked about kratom before. You may have seen it for sale at a law-flaunting headshop, or in an online dispensary. Kratom consumption is becoming increasingly popular but what is it? And is it something you want to take?
What is Kratom?
In short, kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a psychoactive herb that grows on an evergreen tree that’s found in Southeast Asia as well as Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. It’s closely related to the coffee plant, which you might recognize as the producer of the world’s favourite drug. At low doses, kratom can act like a stimulant, making you feel more energized, creative, and optimistic. At high doses, kratom can have more sedative properties, and is sometimes sold as a pain reliever. It can even bring on some euphoria.
It has a long history of traditional medicinal use in Southeast Asia, and in modern times, people often take it to help deal with the effects of opioid withdrawal, due to the similar sedative sensation it can give when you take a lot (we’ll get into that later on in the article). Some people who take it on the regular swear by it, claiming it makes them alert, focused, and relaxed. While Kratom can be purchased legally in many places in the world, in the UK, it falls under the Psychoactive Substances Act.
Kratom contains two major psychoactive ingredients: mitragynine, an indole-based alkaloid that has pain-relieving properties, and 7-hydroxymytragynine, a terpenoid indole alkaloid that acts as a mixed opioid receptor agonist/antagonist. A study showed that 7-hydroxymytragynine converted into mitragynine pseudoindoxyl, an analgesic that appears to be 20 times more potent than morphine.
There are three major strains of kratom. I’ll break them down here:
Red strain kratom is characterized by the plant’s bright red leaf veins. It contains high contents of 7-hydroxymytragynine. Red kratom is particularly known and valued for its pain-relieving properties. It’s said to be very sedative and especially fast-acting. The red kratom is most often used for pain relief, chronic pain management, stress relief, and sedative effects. It’s marketed as a more “mellow” type of kratom. It’s harvested from mature kratom trees, and most often taken in the evening before bedtime. There are a handful of strains within the red category, including Red Thai, Red Dragon, and Red Malay, the latter of which is said to be a particularly potent painkiller.
Green strain kratom is harvested from middle-aged kratom trees and can be noted for its green leaf veins. It offers stimulant effects, mental clarity, and is typically considered a “middle” option between the sedative red strains and the stimulating white strains. Higher doses can aid with sleep and some pain relief, just like the red strain. Green kratom can be a great option for beginners to get a good idea of kratom’s effects in the early stages of experimenting.
White vein kratom is harvested from young kratom trees, and, like the others is characterised by its leaf vein colour. It’s the most stimulating kratom strain, often being used as a coffee replacement or a creativity booster. It offers very little sedative effects, even at higher doses, because it has the highest concentration of mitragynine of all the kratom strains.
How to take kratom
Traditionally, kratom leaves are picked straight from the tree and chewed raw. It can also be taken orally in capsule form, as a powder, or made into a tea, which, like psilocybin, appears to be the preferred method in the West, given the shared bad taste and tummy troubles that arise from raw consumption. If you’re looking for kratom in the Western world, powder and form are your most commonly found forms, but there also exist kratom tinctures and extracts and, of course, the usual edible suspects: Gummies, chocolates, and cookies to name a few.
If you’re new to kratom, consider starting with a low dose of one to two grams, after which you can move up after seeing how you feel. A high dose starts at six grams or more. Tripsitter has a helpful dosage guide here.
What does taking kratom feel like?
The effects of kratom are interesting, to say the least. In lower doses, kratom can have an incredibly energizing effect. I recall a few years ago a friend of mine was drinking it every morning as a coffee replacement. I didn’t know much about kratom then – it was fairly new in my circle, and few people had experience with it. Now, it’s become a bit of a favoured substance among those in the know, and it’s often touted as a safer, more “healthy” alternative to many other things, among them coffee and pharmaceutical painkillers. Unlike coffee, though, kratom won’t give you the “shakes” or a sudden burst of hyperactivity – instead, the energizing onset is pleasant and uplifting, and is said to help boost artistic creativity. It can be used as a substitute for pre-workout (yes, really), and generally helps clear your head with just the right amount of euphoria.
At a higher dose, kratom’s effects are totally different. You go from feeling energized and euphoric to feeling sedated, sleepy, and very, very relaxed. It’s at this dose that we see a similarity to the effects of common opioids – you’ll likely find yourself very tired, and if you have any chronic or high-level pain, it’s at this dose that you might be able to find some relief.
The effects of kratom typically kick it around 10 to 30 minutes after ingestion, and can last anywhere from two to five hours.
Use in Southeast Asia
Historically, kratom has been taken in Southeast Asia for thousands of years, with its use as a traditional medicine well-known across the region. Countries with a history of kratom use Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Papua New Guinea. It’s been used as a fast-acting stimulant by labourers, who would pluck the leaves from nearby trees and chew them raw to increase energy levels and combat fatigue, as well as a pain-reliever. Research into Indigenous history and use of kratom in Southeast Asia suggests that kratom has been used in ceremonial or ritualistic contexts, especially in Thailand, where kratom may be consumed to connect with ancestors or manifest protection from evil. In addition, certain hill tribes of Thailand have group ceremonies or events that involve chewing kratom leaves as a form of community bonding and social connection.
Indonesia also holds kratom in high reverence, with a traditional ceremony known as Nyirih involving the creation of a mixture called Seket which includes kratom leaves, betel nut, lime, and other ingredients.
One of my first introductions to kratom was from the friend who was drinking kratom as a coffee substitute. She told me about its potential for helping opioid addicts deal with withdrawal symptoms due to its similar effects in high doses.
“There have been a lot of anecdotal reports suggesting kratom has some pain-relieving properties and has helped transition users from prescription opioids to this product,” says Chris McCurdy, Ph.D., a professor of medicinal chemistry in the UF College of Pharmacy.
In a 2008 study, a former 43-year-old hydromorphone addict quit using “abruptly” and attempted to “self-manage” his pain and withdrawal symptoms by drinking kratom tea four times a day. “The patient attributed substantial pain relief to kratom as well as improved alertness. He did not, however, experience the drowsiness that often accompanied opioid use.”
So far, there have been few formal studies, although according to an analysis of 500 YouTube videos posted by Healio, most people who were taking kratom (over 83%) were doing it to deal with opioid addiction, with pain relief coming in at a close second.
Despite being plant-based and often hailed as a “better” and “safer” alternative, regular kratom use also has its risks. Despite people in Southeast Asia using it for thousands of years and appearing unharmed, the West still has its worries: Is there a possibility for abuse of the plant, given its opioid-like effects at high doses?
The answer to this is maybe. A quick Google search for “kratom withdrawal Reddit” brings up not only forums of people taking kratom to deal with opioid addiction, but also people dealing with kratom addiction themselves.
“Kratom is an opioid,” one user states. “While its withdrawal symptoms are not nearrrlllly as bad as bad heroin or other opiates, they do suck and it’s not easy to get off of. I have nothing against the drug and am grateful that it provided me some relief during the dark Covid era, but its stay in my life was overdue.”
The Mayo Clinic agrees: “In one study, people who took kratom for more than six months experienced withdrawal symptoms similar to those that occur after opioid use.” Apparently, if kratom is being used during pregnancy, the infant may experience withdrawal symptoms after birth.
Like other opioids, overdose is possible with kratom, and symptoms are similar to that of other opioid overdoses. Kratom is responsible for several deaths, including one 2021 passing of a woman in Florida, who was found face-down with a bag of the powder next to her.
Kratom is a psychoactive plant that is commonly found in Southeast Asia. It has a long history of use in various countries in the region, including Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In modern times, it’s often taken in powdered, tea, or capsule form by Westerners as a form of pain relief and sedative or stimulant. Sound confusing? That’s because kratom has two wildly different sets of effects: Low doses make you feel energized and the high ones make you sleep. Kratom comes in three different strains: Red, green, and white, going from ultra-sedative to in-between to ultra-stimulating, respectively. Kratom has been anecdotally used as a tool to help with opioid withdrawal symptoms, although addiction to kratom itself has been reported, as well as some deaths. If you plan to use kratom, consider doing a healthy amount of research first, and limiting your consumption to occasionally, rather than daily. And remember, in the UK Kratom isn’t listed under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but it does fall under the Psychoactive Substances Act, meaning that selling, importing and exporting it is illegal.