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Asian Plant May Help Opioid Addicts, But It Comes With Risks

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – For someone addicted to heroin or opioids desperately wanting anything to break the death spiral, Kratom is a possible green light on the horizon. Or is it?

"Kratom is primarily a tree, a plant, that comes from Southeast Asia primarily Thailand and areas around there," says Michael Zemaitis, PhD of the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy.

Dr. Zemaitis says the people who live in that part of the world have been using Kratom for centuries to relieve pain or get a feeling of overall well-being. "They are either chewing the leaf or making a tea out of the dry leaf," he says.

Kratom contains mitragynine which Dr. Zemaitis says acts like an opioid, "in the brain and binds the opioid receptors." Some claim it has helped them get off opioids or heroin. "It kind of substitutes for an opioid and it produces a degree of less dependence and less symptoms of withdrawal."

Which is why so many products touting Kratom are popping up for legal sale on the internet. But Dr. Zemaitis says be careful, "The products that are on the market now, you don't know what you're getting." He says they could be laced with just about anything.

A recent CNN report indicated that because Kratom is a plant and it can't be patented the big drug companies have stayed away from developing it for retail use. Dr. Zemaitis says private studies are far from being able to recommend dosages or risk.

Gateway Rehab's Dr. Neil Capretto says Kratom, "can definitely help reduce withdrawal symptoms. If you stay on it too long and keep increasing doses which many people do, you can become at least physically dependent and even addicted to it." Dr. Capretto says he has treated several people who have become addicted to Kratom.

Since Kratom is classified as a natural food product and not a drug it has not been through the extensive government testing and scrutiny medications face. In fact Dr. Zemanitis says, "The DEA has it on its watch list and six or seven states have already outlawed its sale."

While there are insufficient studies for the scientific community to embrace Kratom, Dr. Zemaitis says the positive effects so many people of have reported warrant further study.

In the meantime, its buyer beware, and consult your doctor.

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