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What is Kratom? Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a plant originating from Southeast Asia with a long history of use in traditional medicine and herbal remedies.

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What Is Kratom?

Kratom, botanically known as Mitragyna Speciosa is a tropical, deciduous and evergreen tree classified under the coffee family. Mitragyna Speciosa tree is native to the tropical rainforests of Thailand and Indonesia and typically grows to be about 30 feet tall, and 15 feet wide. Mitragyna Speciosa thrives in wet, humus-rich areas, and it requires a mineral rich soil for a healthy tree to grow. It’s dark colored leaves grow to be quite large, with up to 7 inches long and 4 inches wide. The leaves fall or grow depending on the season, and all throughout its flowering stage the florets are completely surrounded and covered by overlapping bracteoles.

Often found in a number of countries in Southeast Asia, specifically in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the Mitragyna Speciosa tree grows leaves that are according to research, “abundantly rich in therapeutic and soothing properties,” therefore considered to be one of the most sacred herbs of that region. In Southeast Asia, Mitragyna Speciosa powder and leaves have been used in ceremonies, rituals and folk medicine for centuries and have in only the recent years made its way to the Western World. However, number of countries as well as United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly prohibit internal use of Mitragyna Speciosa. It is important to note that even though it is legal to buy kratom as well as kratom powder, the internal use of Kratom has not been proven safe, and it is to be completely avoided until United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other governing bodies classify it as safe.

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Kratom History

Mentions of Mitragyna Speciosa date back millennia and the information and research concerning it, have spread accurately for hundreds of years. Over the years many botanists and researchers have successfully passed on the true value of this plant; however long term studies on Kratom are still pending quality research. Unlike many other herbs, Kratom doesn’t share a romanticized history and is mostly tied to traditional use as well as folk medicine for peasants and workers who coped with hard labor in Southeast Asia. According to Western literature, first descriptions of Mitragyna Speciosa, now known as Kratom, come from Pieter Willem Korthals, botanists working for the East India Company. Additional literature came from Low, in 1836. He mentioned that the peasants and rural workers of Malaysia distributed it in Malaysia.

First signs of medical research were recorded in 1907 when L. Wray sent samples of both Mitragyna Speciosa and its relatives to the University of Edinburgh where Hooper isolated the alkaloids. This research was rectified in 1921 when Fray named the alkaloids Mitragynine as well as isolating Mitraversine from the leaves of Mitragyna parvifolia. Another medical study came in 1930 from I. H. Burkill, who studied the psychoactive effects and described its traditional use as a medicine, mentioning it as the treatment for diarrhea and fever and use as poultice and ointments. This study was confirmed the Thai study in 1975 by Dr. Sangun Suwanlert, as well as the discovery of three additional alkaloids.

Shortly after the conducted studies, on August 3, 1943, the government of Thailand passed the Kratom Act 2486, declaring the possession and sale of Kratom illegal. According to this law, the remaining trees had to be cut down as well. On January 29, 1993, Ministry of Health declared Mitragyna Speciosa a controlled narcotic drug under Section 30 (b) of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law in Myanmar. Followed by the ban in 1993, in 2003, Malaysia illegalized Mitragynine and in 2004 further extended it to the leaves of Mitragyna Speciosa.

Kratom Chemistry

Mitragynine was first isolated in 1921 and its chemical formula elucidated in 1964 (C23H30N2O4) with a molecular weight of 398.50g/mol. It is insoluble in water, though soluble in organic solvents such as alcohols, acetic acid, diethyl ether and chloroform. At a temperature ranging between 230 and 240, mitragynine distills. This leads to the formation of a white and amorphous precipitate with a melting point of 102-106 degree Celsius. Another alkaloid found in Kratom is 7-hydroxymitragynine. It is too complex to be synthesized in the laboratory thus mostly naturally obtained. It can however serve as a precursor molecule for synthesis of other molecules. The discovery of 7-Hydroxymitragynine came in the year 2002 by a group of Japanese researchers. Upon its discovery, Japanese researchers patented the compound with the hope of its future use in pharmaceuticals. This move by Japanese researchers is meant to ensure that incase the plant has medicinal properties then they own all the right to manufacture and distribute the potential medicine.

The fact that the plant contains several phytochemicals makes its pharmacological evaluation complex. There have been a few human clinical studies on Kratom although with time more and more studies are coming into the spotlight. Studies claim that the active compounds in Kratom, mitragynine, is a mu-opioid receptor agonist which medical professionals claim could have beneficial effects, however additional research is still necessary. Kratom also contains an alkaloid which acts to block the calcium ion channels in the body thus making them key players in the alpha-2 adrenergic receptor pathways. The metabolism of Kratom by the human body is occurs through hydrolysis of the side-chain ester, O-demethylation of methoxy groups, reduction and oxidative transformations, and finally through the formation of sulfate conjugates and glucuronides.

The pharmacology of Kratom among the humans is not well studied thus its protein binding ability, metabolism and elimination properties are yet to be fully understood. A number of studies has ruled out any medicinal potential of Kratom, however based on its traditional and modern use, more research has been carried out using model organisms and various potential uses of the plant characterized. Based on these studies, there is a potential for Kratom be used in medicine, however, as mentioned earlier, there is not enough research to rule out the safety of Kratom. Despite its vast cultural uses in folk medicine, it is important to know that U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly prohibits internal use of this herb until more research is done.

Kratom Legality

Currently, in most of the world those interested can freely purchase Kratom, however that could change at any moment. Recent rise in popularity of Kratom has met a lot of opposition from various state agencies, and a number of governments putting a ban on sale and use. This has attracted interest from biomedical researchers across the globe. Dr. Boyer, a medical toxicologist at the toxicology department in particular become interested in the study after it emerged that more than 40 million Americans depended on Kratom leading to an increase in demand for the Kratom powder.

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