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UF Study Suggests Kratom Could Treat Opioid Addictions

Super Yellow kratom tea is sold in Gainesville at Mai Kai Kava Bar, located at 17 W. University Ave. Super Yellow is a blend of two different types of kratom with differing chemical components. (Tristan Wood/WUFT News)
Super Yellow kratom tea is sold in Gainesville at Mai Kai Kava Bar, located at 17 W. University Ave. Super Yellow is a blend of two different types of kratom with differing chemical components. (Tristan Wood/WUFT News)

A UF study suggests kratom, a plant native to southeast Asia, could be an all-natural treatment for opioid addictions.

Researchers found that kratom tea alleviated some withdrawal symptoms, such as difficulty breathing in morphine-addicted mice, said Jay McLaughlin, a project researcher and UF pharmacy professor. So far, kratom has also provided pain relief with less addiction withdrawal symptoms than morphine.

A five-year, $3.4 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse is funding the study, which is overseen by graduate assistant Lisa Wilson and Chris McCurdy of the UF College of Pharmacy. The study tested anecdotal claims that kratom reduces the opioid addiction symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, McLaughlin said.

Kratom can be purchased at gas stations, kava bars and smoke shops in Florida and all but six other U.S states. The plant has been contested out of concerns that it may be addictive and harmful.

At 17, Ian Mautner began consuming kratom tea at a kava bar in Delray Beach, Ian’s mother Linda Mautner said. After struggling and being treated for a three-year kratom addiction, he committed suicide in July 2014, Mautner added.

“Kratom became number one in his life,” Mautner said.

While struggling with addiction, Ian would not shower and lost about 20 pounds, Mautner said. Sometimes, she said she would find his bed soaked with sweat.

“I told him I can’t live like this, I can’t watch my son die right before my eyes,” Mautner said.

When Ian went to a drug treatment clinic, Mautner said he told staff that his kratom tea was altered by another substance.

“He felt that he was tricked, that someone laced his drink,” Mautner said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 91 out of 27,338 overdose deaths between July 2016 and December 2017 were related to kratom. All but seven of the kratom-related deaths involved other drugs, such as fentanyl and heroin. The Drug Enforcement Agency attempted to make kratom a Schedule I drug, which would make it fall under the same classification as heroin, LSD and marijuana.

Kratom advocates, like the American Kratom Association, pushed back against kratom’s scheduling, said Mac Haddow, senior fellow of public policy at the association. The potential danger of kratom does not lie with the plant itself, Haddow said. Instead, the synthetic chemicals and other drugs added to kratom products are often unregulated.

Another study conducted by McCurdy found that some kratom products were altered with synthetic components, such as 7-Hydroxymitragynine, a compound naturally found in kratom, but synthetically increased in some of the commercial samples.

While Mautner said she respects McCurdy’s research, she is concerned that some people will read his work and purchase a kratom product altered by synthetic components.

“If he has a component to help the opioid epidemic, my feelings about that are ‘Yay, let's do it,’” Mautner said. “But the alteration of the product, that is going to happen until regulation is in place.”

The AKA is working to further kratom regulations, Haddow said. It is advocating to pass a bill called the Kratom Consumer Protection Act that would place restrictions on kratom sales in all states that pass it in their legislatures.

The bill would prohibit synthetic additives, require labels and set age restrictions on all kratom products, Haddow added. Versions of the bill were passed with overwhelming support in Utah, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada. Twenty-one other states are currently considering the bill, Haddow said.

Despite the UF study’s findings, more research is required, McLaughlin said.

Other forms of kratom need to be tested, he said. The alkaloids, or drug-like molecules inside the plant, vary depending on the conditions kratom is grown in.

Early results of studies of different alkaloid makeups suggest there are similar results across different natural products, he said. This is only the case if there are no other substances added to kratom.

“It would appear that we can see consistently beneficial responses from a wide variety of kratom sources, but we are still working on that,” McLaughlin said.

He added that he hopes the result of UF’s kratom research provides new therapies for people addicted to opioids.

“Given the fact that we are probably looking at least 72,000 deaths to opioid overdoses this year alone, it is really important that we find a solution soon to help these people as fast as possible,” McLaughlin said. “That work is right underway here at UF; hopefully, we can find some results that can help.”

Tristan is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing news@wuft.org.