Is Kratom a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

Kratom is an unusual target in the War on Drugs. A relative newcomer to the American market, kratom hovers in the space between plant-based medicine and prescription drug, and while it’s usually used as a painkiller, it’s been the subject of some conversation over at the World Anti-Doping Agency. Is kratom a performance enhancer, and is it being considered a doping agent?

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. BarBend does not endorse the use of banned substances for sport performance. 

What Is Kratom?

Also called ketum or by its scientific name Mitragyna speciosa, kratom is native to Southeast Asia and has a history of use in traditional medicine. It’s also pretty well known for its opioid- and stimulant-like effects that include managing pain, improving sociability, and providing what some users report as an enjoyable buzz. (Yes, it’s kind of similar to marijuana in that regard, though the plants are from two different families.)

Humans have been munching on its leaves for at least two hundred years but only in the twenty-first century has it made its way to the United States, smack in the middle of the opioid epidemic. Last year, at least 180 people died each day from opioid overdoses, and kratom could have some promise as an alternative to prescription painkillers. (While it has opioid-like effects, it’s chemically dissimilar to actual opioids.)

Several states have banned or restricted its use, and while it’s legal under federal law and requires no prescription, its status is turbulent. In 2016, the DEA announced their intent to put kratom’s active constituents (mitragynine and 7-HMG) on the Schedule I drug list alongside heroin and cannabis. They withdrew their intent a few months later, but they continue to insist that, “there is no legitimate medicinal use for kratom” and in late 2017 the FDA said they had “evidence to show that there are significant safety issues associated with its use.”

Why Are People Using Kratom In the Gym?

Kratom’s status is also volatile at the World Anti-Doping Agency. For years it was on their monitoring program, but it is no longer monitored as of 2018, so athletes in WADA testing won’t get “popped” for it. The United States Anti-Doping Agency, meanwhile, appears to support the FDA’s position that the drug is dangerous, but legal — for now. Their website states that, “While Kratom is not currently prohibited, athletes are advised to steer clear of Kratom for health reasons.”

“In Malaysia, we see footballers often use kratom tea to increase performance and to overcome fatigue after a football match,” says Dr. Darshan Singh, a scientist at the University of Science Malaysia whose research focuses on kratom. “In Western society, you may see athletes who are involved in weight lifting sports consume kratom to treat pain or to increase stamina.”

While in large doses kratom can have sedative-like effects, smaller doses can be stimulatory. Singh compared “weight lifters” (his term for anyone who lifts weights competitively) with manual laborers in Southeast Asia who have historically used kratom tea to reduce fatigue and boost focus during long shifts.

“Thus, for weight lifters, they may be using kratom as a safer alternative to other known or banned sports enhancing agents,” he said. “I assume that when used in smaller quantities, kratom can help to enhance weight lifters’ performances, and at present there is no test to detect mitragynine in human urine.”

“I think it’s a bit like how caffeine works, where a lot of people use coffee to get started before a lift,” says Peter D’Aquino, MS, a board-certified acupuncturist and herbalist based in New York City. “But I would say the vast majority of any gains someone would get from the gym would be secondary to its ability to alleviate soreness. Anything that can subdue pain will give you better potential lifts, right?”

While it does help with energy and focus and may even increase vasodilation, the fact that it appears to help with chronic pain and injuries may be the real attraction for strength athletes.

“It’s not going to make you stronger per se,” D’Aquino continues. “But one of its best known effects is reducing back pain. A lot of people have back pain, and it’s widely touted as a go-to herb for combating the use of stronger, opioid drugs.”

Will Taking Kratom Help Performance?

Kratom isn’t anabolic and while it’s hard to properly quantify its stimulant-like effects, if you’re strictly taking it for an energy boost in the gym you’d probably get more out of a simple pre-workout.

“If you’re taking a stimulant frequently, even something as simple as caffeine, it’s not going to be good for anxiety or recovery,” says D’Aquino. “It’ll keep you in a catabolic state because you’re ‘revved up’ and have a very sympathetic nervous system. Most likely, kratom should be cycled.”

And it probably won’t make you lift more, unless you’re experiencing chronic pain that you need to lift through. (We know, this still sounds a little like we’re talking about marijuana.)

For people who do have chronic pain they want to lift through, a better question might be: is kratom a safe, effective alternative to meds? It’s hard to say. Singh’s latest paper is one of many that suggest kratom leaves have no toxic effects on regular users, and while the DEA insists that fifteen people died from kratom between 2014 and 2016, fourteen of them had other drugs in their system. Many of the ill effects of kratom have been linked to pills adulterated with other chemicals, like O-Desmethyltramadol.

This isn’t to say there are no risks associated with kratom; there are rare reports of seizures and it may have addictive qualities when used long term, though more research is needed. But even for users who are convinced that it’s risk-free or that the risks are justifiable, it can be tough to obtain unadulterated kratom — and that adds even more risk.

“There are many vendors out there and most do not have license to distribute kratom due to FDA and DEA interventions,” says Singh. “There are many different kratom products, and some will bogusly claim that their strains are better for enhancing sports performance.”

Plants are hard to regulate, but like it or not, one of the benefits of regulation could be (more of) an assurance that you’re buying the real thing. 

The Future of Kratom

“It looks like kratom will be regulated in years to come,” says Singh. “Generally, kratom is much safer than opioids but more research is needed to show its therapeutic properties.”

The benefits, drawbacks, and myths of kratom need hundreds of pages to be adequately discussed. Used infrequently, it doesn’t appear to be dangerous in the short term. Used in high doses for longer periods of time, we’re not super sure, and we don’t want to imply that it’s a risk-free drug.

Experts are split, but they seem to agree on one thing: it probably won’t stay legal and unregulated.

Featured image via @norcal_kratom on Instagram.

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Nick is a content producer and journalist with over seven years’ experience reporting on four continents. His first articles about health were on a cholera outbreak in rural Kenya while he was reporting for a French humanitarian organization. His next writing job was covering the nightlife scene in Shanghai. He’s written on a lot of different kinds of things, but his passion for health ultimately led him to cover it full time.Shanghai was where he managed to publish his first health related article (it was on managing diarrhea), he then went on to produce a radio documentary about bodybuilding in Australia before he finished his Master’s degrees in Journalism and International Relations and headed to New York City. Here, he’s been writing on health full time for more than five years for outlets like Men's Health, VICE, and Popular Science.Nick’s interest in health kind of comes from an existential angle: how are we meant to live? How do we reach our potential? Does the body influence the mind? (Believe it or not, his politics Master’s focused on religion.)Questions like these took him through a lot of different areas of health and fitness like gymnastics, vegetarianism, kettlebell training, fasting, CrossFit, Paleo, and so on, until he realized (or decided) that strength training fit best with the ideas of continuous, measurable self improvement.At BarBend his writing focuses a little more on nutrition and long-form content with a heaping dose of strength training. His underlying belief is in the middle path: you don’t have to count every calorie and complete every workout in order to benefit from a healthy lifestyle and a stronger body. Plus, big traps are cool.