Today, a lot of emphasis on “natural” ingredients, in things like foods or beauty products. However, the term “natural” can be very misleading when used in marketing campaigns for consumable products. People often assume that products are safe and healthy, simply because they are “natural.” By that toke, right now there are two “natural,”plant-derived products that have been rapidly growing in popularity, but are far from safe and are certainly not healthy. Kava-Kava and Kratom are widely promoted online and locally in Kava bars as having relaxing properties and many health benefits. Most individuals who start to using these substances have no idea about their inherent risks.
Kava-Kava, also known as Yaqona, has been traditionally consumed in many Polynesian Island cultures for the relaxing effect it has on the human brain. Formal Yaqona ceremonies will often accompany important functions, usually involving a ritual presentation of the bundled roots as a gift, and the drinking of the Kava itself. Kava does in fact have relaxing properties. The problem is that it can be abused and with regular usage cause physical dependence. The Polynesian cultures have documented, in great detail, this substance’s signs and symptoms of abuse. Heavy users exhibit overall poor health, swollen faces, and scaly rashes. In a manner resembling what happens with heavy regular use of alcohol and sedatives, cessation of regular use of Kava can also lead to a chemical withdrawal syndrome. This syndrome is characterized by anxiety, tremor, sweating and possibly even seizures. These problems can develop in an individual without any previous issues with addiction or substance abuse.
Kratom is another popular Kava bar item and has even greater physical dependence implications. Kratom is a leaf collected from a tree in the coffee family that has significant psychoactive properties. There are many purported medicinal uses for this substance, including serving as a natural alternative to treat depression, anxiety, addiction, diabetes, chronic pain and fatigue. Many individuals experience an increase in energy, elevations of mood, and relief from pain when on Kratom. The effects are short-lived, and their is a natural inclination is to take more and more over time. The benefits can be reproduced but soon physical dependence develops. The nature and severity of the physical dependence caused by regular Kratom use resembles that seen with opioids such as oxycodone and heroin. Affected individuals experience flu like symptoms, sweating, goose flesh, hot and cold flashes, body aches, leg cramps, weakness, fatigue, depression, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Lasting a week or longer, most people cannot stand the withdrawal symptoms and go back on Kratom. Feeling trapped and unable to get off, Kratom-dependent individuals end up requiring full medical detoxification, just as if they had been abusing heroin or prescription painkillers.
The number of relapses caused by these substances is alarming and community efforts have arisen to try and address the problem. A number of Florida municipalities, including both Broward and Palm Beach Counties, have made unsuccessful attempts to ban Kratom. Sarasota County did succeed in banning Kratom in 2014. The Federal Government briefly initiated a ban on Kratom, but this was undone before it could take effect. Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin have succeeded in making Kratom illegal in all areas of use, possession, and purchase. For the rest of the country, Kava and Kratom continue to pose an insidious threat to the public health. Greater awareness and vigilance regarding the high risks of consuming these substances, especially for individuals in addiction recovery, will continue to be the primary means of trying to contain this public health crisis until a definitive legal solution can be found.
Raul J Rodriguez M.D. is the founder, CEO and Medical Director of the Delray Center For Healing, an outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment center with locations in Delray Beach & Boca Raton. If you are struggling with substance use, please give us a call at 561-250-7208 to schedule an assessment with Dr. Rodriguez.