Dr. Christopher McCurdy, professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida (UF), became interested in the therapeutic potential of kratom from learning how it’s been used in its native region.
“Kratom has been used by field workers in Southeast Asia to relieve pain and as a stimulant to improve their work capacity in the hot, tropical climate,” he said. “Also, when they would run out of opium—for those who used it—they would use kratom in a little bit higher doses to help avoid opioid withdrawal.”
McCurdy wants to get to the root of the leaves’ chemical properties and pharmacologic effects. He asks, as does the title of his recent NCCIH Integrative Medicine Research Lecture, “Can a controversial tree help end the opioid crisis?”
Substance of Concern
Despite an FDA import alert, an estimated 2,000 metric tons of kratom enter the U.S. monthly, mostly from Indonesia, suggesting millions of users across the country. Though federally legal, kratom is banned or restricted in multiple states. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has classified kratom as a drug and chemical of concern, pending further study.
“We know that very few deaths are attributable to a kratom product alone, and for those that are, there could be extreme circumstances, in terms of overdosing, or it could be adulterated with synthetic compounds,” such as fentanyl derivatives or other novel psychoactive substances that are unknown or undetected, said McCurdy.
Traditionally, in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, kratom is consumed as a brewed tea. The fresh leaves are cut and boiled for hours.
In the U.S., though, kratom arrives as crushed leaves or powder and can come in different forms: capsules, Liquid extracts, even gummies. McCurdy is collaborating with UF’s Apopka campus to grow kratom trees and extrapolate the pharmacologic differences between fresh-leaf kratom and concentrated extracts.
“Collaboratively, we are trying to get a homegrown species to develop a product more similar to the traditional use for study in the U.S., [rather] than having to rely on these dried-leaf materials, which undergo post-harvest oxidation…and many times have changed the composition of the alkaloidal content,” he said.