What Is Kratom?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 15, 2023
2 min read

Kratom is a tree that grows naturally in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. Its leaves have traditionally been used as medicine, but now they’re also being used as a recreational drug.

Doctors believe some substances in kratom attach themselves to the same parts of a nerve cell as opioid painkillers and create a similar effect in your brain. But there haven’t been a lot of detailed studies into how it works or why.

Doctors warn that it may have serious side effects and could be addictive. Because of that, several states have banned kratom products, and it’s considered a controlled substance in Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, and some European countries. In 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) proposed banning kratom at the federal level, but they dropped that proposal to give scientists more time to study it.

Traditionally, kratom leaves were chewed, brewed into tea, or used in cooking. Today it’s ground up in pills, or crushed and smoked like tobacco or marijuana.

It has different effects at different doses. In low doses, it’s a stimulant that makes you feel more energetic. At high doses, it can make you sleepy or put you in a dreamlike state.

The most common are nausea and constipation, but others include:

Some people who used it regularly said they had issues with pain, trouble sleeping, diarrhea, and fevers when they stopped using it. Some said they felt nervous, tense, angry, or sad when they weren’t taking kratom.

The FDA says there are no FDA-approved uses for kratom and that it has serious concerns about it. More research is needed to find out if it’s safe or if it has any medical value.

In recent years, the agency has cracked down on companies that sell kratom as a treatment for withdrawal from opioids and other conditions. They also warn that some kratom products may be tainted with harmful bacteria like salmonella.

The agency also has reported at least 44 deaths among people who used kratom, though many of them took other drugs along with it or used kratom that was contaminated with other substances.