Mitragyna speciosa is a tropical tree native to parts of the Southeast Asian peninsula (Thailand and Malaysia), Borneo, and New Guinea. The tree has a straight trunk that grows to an average of 4 meters in height (13 feet), but can reach heights of between 12-30 meters (40-100 feet) under appropriate growing conditions. The branches are forked, and the ovate leaves are tapered at their ends. The leaves grow opposite each other on the branch, and are on average 10 centimeters (4 inches) wide and 12 centimeters (7 inches) long. Mitragyna speciosa flowers grow in clusters on stalks at the ends of the leaf axils, and are a deep yellow in color (Ratsch 1998, 366).
As it is a tropical plant, kratom does not respond well to cold temperatures and grows best in environments that provide a generous amount of sunlight and water. This excellent article on How to Grow Kratom from Seed provides more information about how to propagate and grow kratom plants.
TRADITIONAL USES: The epicenter of kratom’s traditional use is in Thailand, where it is also called ithang, kakuam, and in the south, thom. There may have also been some kratom use on the Malaysian Peninsula. In Thailand, kratom has been used for so long that the approximate date at which its use began cannot be determined. Although the government of Thailand declared kratom illegal in 1943, its use among peasants, farmers, and laborers to ease lives of hard labor and poverty has continued to this day. Female users of kratom are rare, and the age of onset for kratom use tends to be older than for other medicines (Murple 2006).
Traditionally, kratom leaves have been chewed as a substitute for opium when it was unavailable, and also to mitigate a moderate opium addiction; a few individuals also use kratom to prolong sexual intercourse (Ratsch 1998, 366). kratom is most often chewed by day laborers because of its stimulant effect, and a perceived ability to generate work ethic. In fact, in Thai culture, parents looking to give daughters away in marriage often see kratom chewers as more desirable potential husbands than users of marijuana, whom they perceive as lazy compared to the industrious kratom users. Habitual kratom chewers have echoed this sentiment in surveys, in which many individuals state that they first started chewing kratom out of a desire to work more efficiently and get more enjoyment out of work (Murple 2006).
There are still not enough studies to generate an estimate of kratom’s addictive potential: some studies have found no addiction problems in village populations of kratom users, while others have. The main active compounds in kratom leaf have a binding affinity for mu-opioid receptors, and it is possible that in high enough doses, mu-opioid receptor crossover could result in potential addiction. Habitual use of kratom does seem to carry habituating effects, such that while new users of kratom may be able to achieve desired effects by chewing just a few leaves, more experienced users may have to increase dosage to 10-30 leaves or more a day. Heavy users may chew kratom between three and ten times per day on average (Murple 2006).
Users distinguish two varieties of Mitragyna speciosa by the color of veins in the leaf: white/green-veined kratom and red-veined kratom. There is also a related species called Mitragyna javanica that has not been extensively assayed but may generate some of the same psychoactive effects. M. javanica is sometimes used as a kratom substitute to get around the Thai law banning possession of M. speciosa. Between the white/green-veined and red-veined varieties of kratom, the white/green kind is thought to generate stronger effects. One study of Thai kratom users found that most preferred a blend of the white and red-veined varieties, followed by red-veined only and white-veined only (Murple 2006).
Considering that M. speciosa is a tree species native to Thailand, the Thai laws surrounding kratom are extremely strict: as a drug, Mitragyna speciosa is classed in the same enforcement category as heroin and cocaine, with possession of one ounce of kratom extract punishable by death. The Kratom Act, passed August 3rd, 1943, outlawed the planting of new kratom trees and required that existing ones be cut down; however, since kratom is native to Thailand the law has been essentially impossible to enforce. The main effect of the Thai laws against growing and possessing kratom has been to increase black market prices for the leaves. People sometimes also consume the related Mitragyna javanica, but the effects are perceived to be weaker. So far, there have been no pharmacological tests of mitrajavine, this species’ dominant alkaloid (Murple 2006).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Native users who have access to kratom trees usually collect the fresh leaves and chew them in a quid to provide relief from fatigue and aid work ethic, much as coca leaves are consumed in Andean regions of South America. An average dose for beginning to moderate kratom users is between three and ten fresh leaves, while experienced kratom chewers may take as many as 20 leaves at one time, 2-3 times daily. In the fresh preparation, the leaf vein is extracted, and salt is often added to prevent constipation. Users traditionally follow the chewing of fresh kratom leaves by partaking of a hot beverage such as warm water or coffee (Murple 2006). Other ways that people consume kratom include smoking the leaves, steeping them in a tea, or making a resin extraction of the foliage. In this preparation, kratom leaves are boiled down in a bit of water until the plant material has been reduced to a tar-like consistency; the resulting resin can then be shaped into balls and rolled in an edible material like flour for storage. Resin balls keep for several weeks, making this a very popular method of storing and consuming kratom (Murple 2006).
A similar Malaysian preparation involves making syrup out of powdered dried kratom leaves that are boiled in water; an average dose of this syrup is about .38g. Sometimes the syrup is mixed with chopped leaves from the palas palm, rolled into pills called madat, and smoked from a bamboo pipe (Macmillan 1991). Finally, users sometimes chew fresh kratom leaves in combination with betel nuts (Areca catechu), again with salt to prevent constipation (Scholz and Eigner 1983 cited in Ratsch 1998, 366).
MEDICINAL USES: Besides being an unofficial folk remedy for fatigue in Thailand, kratom leaves are also used as a remedy for diarrhea, and to treat intestinal parasites in Malaysia (Said et al 1991). The leaves of M. stipulosa, a related species, are used as a local anesthetic in West Africa, where the bark may also be soaked in palm wine as a diuretic and poison antidote (Ayensu 1978 cited in Ratsch 1998, 367).
Pennapa Sapcharoen, director of the National Institute of Thai Traditional Medicine in Bangkok, suggested in 1999 that kratom leaves could be used to treat people suffering from moderate opiate addiction and also depression, but stressed that these possibilities require more research. Chemists at Chulalongkorn University have isolated pure mitragynine from kratom samples that researchers can obtain for study (Murple 2006).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Scientists have isolated over 25 alkaloids from kratom; the two dominant active alkaloids appear to be mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine (Vooglebreinder 2009). Of Mitragyna speciosa’s diverse compounds, the most abundant are three indoles (the aforementioned mitragynine, paynanthine, and speciogynine, the first two being unique to kratom), and two oxindoles, mitraphylline and speciofoline. Mitragyna speciosa also contains a variety of other indoles, and oxindoles such as corynanthedine, mitraversine, ajmalicine, stipulatine, and rhychophylline (Murple 2006).
D. Hooper first isolated mitragynine in 1907, and the process was repeated by E. Field in 1921, who gave the compound its name (its chemical designation is 9-methoxy-corynantheidine). When isolated, the compound forms a white amorphous powder that has a melting point of 102-106 degrees Celsius and a boiling point of 230-240 degrees Celsius. Its hydrochloride salt form has a melting point of 243 degrees Celsius. Pure mitragynine is soluble in alcohol, chloroform, and acetic acid (Murple 2006).
Kratom leaves contain about 0.5% alkaloids by weight, half of which is mitragynine, and the average kratom leaf weighs about 1.7 grams fresh (0.43 grams dried). Twenty kratom leaves (an average dose for an experienced user) will contain about 17 milligrams of mitragynine. Besides mitragynine, speciogynine, paynanthine, and small amounts of speciociliatine seem to be present in all leaves, with the oxindole alkaloids usually occurring only in trace amounts (Murple 2006).
In 1964, researchers D. Zacharias, R. Rosenstein, and E. Jeffrey fully determined the structure of mitragynine: the compound is similar in structure to the yohimbe alkaloids and to voacangine, and is more distantly related to the tryptamine class of alkaloids, which includes psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). However, mitragynine does not seem to interact with the serotonin receptors in the brain that psychedelic tryptamines affect, nor show any psychedelic activity for most users. Rather, it shows a bonding affinity for the brain’s mu-opioid receptors, which may go a long way to explaining some of kratom’s traditional use as a treatment for opium addiction, first described by H. Ridley in 1897. A more recent study in New Zealand used mitragynine as a treatment during methadone addiction detox: over a 6-week treatment period, patients smoked kratom whenever they experienced withdrawal symptoms. Many patients also reported the side effect of vivid hypnagogic dreams while taking kratom (Murple 2006).
Because of kratom’s history of use in treating opium addiction, Cures Not Wars activist Dana Beal suggested mitragynine as an active placebo to compare to ibogaine in a U.S. study. However, Charles Grudzinskas, Acting Deputy Director of the NIDA, rejected the proposal because even less was known about mitragynine than ibogaine (Murple 2006).
What is known is that rather than being intended as a one-time cure for addiction like ibogaine (even though it is structurally similar), mitragynine seems to work by gradually weaning a user away from opiates through crossover binding action on mu-opioid receptors, an activity that is increased in the presence of opiate drugs. Mitragynine binds initially to mu-opioid receptors, and then automatically directs binding to where it is needed and modulates it toward the delta receptors over a short period of time, easing cravings and withdrawal symptoms in persons addicted to opiates or narcotics, thus allowing the person to stop using these substances over a few days. Some people may also use mitragynine as a maintenance drug to manage uncontrolled opiate use that they do not wish to entirely stop (Murple 2006).
Kratom itself may be addictive if taken in large quantities due to this mu receptor binding affinity (Said et al 1991); some possible symptoms of excessive use include dark lips, emaciation, constipation, and dry skin, although these symptoms may also be due to the lifestyle of a heavy kratom user rather than the drug itself. Acute overdose of kratom can lead to vomiting, muscle twitches, numbness, vertigo, and stupor. Withdrawal symptoms, similar to opiate withdrawal but usually much gentler, can ensue when someone stops heavy kratom use. These withdrawal symptoms include body aches, spastic muscle movements, and mood swings (Ratsch 1998, 367).
At the time of this writing, kratom is legal for purchase and consumption the U.S., and numerous studies on it effects have found it to have a low potential for addiction. However, occasional reports on Mitragyna speciosa in the media have painted kratom as a risk to consumer health with a high potential for addiction. The independent Kratom Association has gathered and debunked a few of the most potent myths:
The effects of kratom tend to be both stimulating (in a manner similar to chewing coca leaves) and sedating (similar to smoking opium). This interesting and paradoxical effect has been compared to chewing coca leaves while smoking opium at the same time. Mitragynine’s effects are similar to codeine in that it increases excitability in the involuntary nervous system, medulla, and motor centers of the CNS (central nervous system). Psychoactive effects can onset as quickly as five minutes after chewing fresh kratom leaves. A few people have also experienced mild psychedelic effects after use of kratom (Ponglux et al 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 367).
PURCHASING KRATOM: 15x Standardized Kratom Extract has become very common online. We feel that this product offers the most “bang for your buck” in many regards. Quality may vary widely, so be careful which company you purchase from. Also, certain Kratom products, such as 120x extracts, are typically scams created just to appear more potent than products offered by competitors. We get countless requests from visitors asking who we recommend, and the answer has been the same for many years now; Shaman’s Garden or IAmShaman. They not only carry the highest quality products we’ve found, they also have customer service that goes above and beyond anyone else we have ever encountered, and they have the most consistent Kratom order after order after order of all the sites we’ve tried.
MORE INFORMATION ON KRATOM: We highly recommend The Kratom Shop. Don’t let the strange name mislead you; they are informational only, and don’t actually sell any Kratom. We would have far more articles here on Kratom Extracts, Leaf, and the plant in general, but they do a much more in-depth and comprehensive look at this one amazing plant. Here are links to some of our favorite articles on that site:
Kratom: Nature’s Gift to the Sick & Fit Alike by Victor Lasato
Kratom Plant Secrets by Keith Edley – on how to grow your own kratom
A discussion of the countless types of Kratom Extracts
Lasato. “Kratom: Nature’s Gift to the Sick & Fit Alike.” Kratom Shop, n.d. http://www.kratomshop.com/naturesgift.htm.
Macmillan, H.F. Tropical Planting and Gardening. 6th ed. Kuala Lumpur: Malayan Nature Society, 1991.
Murple. “Kratom – Inti Yachay.” Murple.net, 2006. http://www.murple.net/yachay/index.php/Kratom.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Said, I.M., N. Chee Chun, and P.J. Houghton. “Ursolic Acid from Mitragyna Speciosa.” Planta Medica 57 (1991): 398.
Vooglebreinder, Snu. The Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna and the Study of Consciousness. Published by Snu Vooglebreinder, 2009.