The herbal supplement kratom has received new health warnings from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over fears that it’s not safe for the public. According to the CDC, there’s been a tenfold increase in the number of calls to poison centres about the herb. There were 263 issues reported in 2015, compared with 26 in 20101. Although in the majority of cases the side effects weren’t serious, some of the calls were relating to serious symptoms and in one case death.

The FDA has expressed that it’s becoming increasingly concerned about the risk to the public, and it believes there have been up to 44 deaths associated with the herb. It said in a statement that “there is no evidence to indicate that kratom is safe or effective for any medical use”, adding that some of the chemical compounds found in kratom are similar to those found in opioids.

The kratom plant is a herbal remedy which is mostly used to treat pain, although it’s sometimes used by heroin addicts to try and reduce withdrawal symptoms caused by the drug. It’s sold to the public as in powder, capsule or liquid form and follows very loose regulations from the FDA. According to the American Kratom Association, there are between 3 and 5 million people using it in the US alone.

Kratom has been a concern for the FDA for some time, and is considered a “drug of concern” by the DEA, who previously wanted it to be listed as a control substance. As a controlled substance, it would be classed under the same category as drugs like LSD or heroin.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb warned that “The model shows us that kratom compounds are predicted to affect the body just like opioids. Based on the scientific information in the literature and further supported by our computational modeling and the reports of its adverse effects in humans, we feel confident in calling compounds found in kratom, opioids.”

However, those who study the plant disagree with the advice that kratom is a dangerous substance. For example, Scott Hemby from the Department of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences at High Point University in North Carolina who has studied the addictiveness of kratom, believes the findings are to broad to prove that it’s dangerous.

When talking about the FDA’s findings, he said “They make a lot of hay of using a computer model, but it’s really nice to validate the findings with actual science,” adding that the compounds don’t bind to opioid receptors in the brain in the same way as opioids. The compounds bind of different parts of the receptors than the chemicals found in heroin or similar drugs. “Just because it binds, it doesn’t mean it has the same efficacy” as an opioid, he said.

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