Rubiaceae (Coffee Family)
Forms and Subspecies
Mitragyna religiosa nom. nud.
Mitragyne speciosa (Korth.) (misspelling in the literature)
Biak, biak-biak, gra-tom, katawn, kratom, kraton, kutum, mabog, mambog, mitragyne
In the nineteenth century, it was reported that kratom was being used in Malaysia as an opium substitute and to heal “opium addiction” (Beckett, Shellard, and Tackie 1965, 241; Tyler 1966, 285*; Wray 1907a, 1907b). Phytochemical research into the plant began around 1920 (Field 1921). Pharmacological studies of the main active constituent began soon thereafter (Grewal 1932a, 1932b).
The tree is indigenous to Thailand and from the northern Malay Peninsula to Borneo and New Guinea (Macmillan 1991, 416*).
The tree grows in marshy regions. No information about propagation is available.
This tropical tree or shrub often grows to a height of only 3 to 4 meters, although it will sometimes grow as tall as 12 to 16 meters. It has a straight trunk with forked branches that grow upward obliquely. The oval, green leaves have a very large surface area (being 8 to 12 cm long) and are tapered at the ends. The deep yellow flowers grow in globular clusters attached to the leaf axils on long stalks. The seeds are winged (Emboden 1979, 184*).
Kratom is easily confused with other members of the genus Mitragyna, such as the African species Mitragyna brunonis (Wall. ex G. Don) Craib.
Preparation and Dosage
The dried leaves can be smoked, chewed, or made into the extract known as kratom or mambog (Wray 1907b). They also can be powdered, brewed with hot water, and drunk as a tea; 8.8 g has been given as a dosage (Macmillan 1991, 416*). Another method of preparation involves powdering the dried leaves and boiling them in water until a syrup results (which is easy to preserve); a dosage of this is 0.38 g. The syrup can be mixed with finely chopped leaves of the palas palm (Lincuala paludosa) and made into pills. This product is known as madat in Malaysia and is smoked in long bamboo pipes (Macmillan 1991, 416*).
The fresh leaves can be chewed together with betel nuts (Areca catechu) (Scholz and Eigner 1983, 75*). Salt is often added to prevent constipation. A typical user will chew three to ten mouthfuls of leaves through the day (Suwanlert 1975).
The main active constituent, mitragynine, appears to be well tolerated and has few toxic effects even when taken in high dosages. In studies with mice, even extreme dosages of 920 mg/kg body weight did not produce any toxic effects (Jansen and Prast 1988, 117).
In Thailand, kratom is used primarily as an opium substitute. It is possible that some type of ritual method of use similar to opium smoking may have developed (see Papaver somniferum). Unfortunately, this area has not been the subject of ethnographic research.
Branch tip and flower of the kratom tree (Mitragyna speciosa).
The typical leaf arrangement of the genus Mitragyna.
“Mitragyna speciosa. . . . Its leaves have narcotic properties like opium. Just as with opium, regular use of the plant can lead to addiction.”
H. F. MACMILLAN
TROPICAL PLANTING AND GARDENING
In Thai medicine, kratom is used to treat diarrhea (Ott 1993, 413*). Drivers of tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorized “taxis”) in Bangkok consume kratom as an amphetamine substitute (Schuldes 1995, 52*). In Malaysia, the leaves are used as a folk medicinal treatment for worms (Said et al. 1991).
In West Africa, the related species Mitragyna stipulosa (DC.) O. Kuntze is used in folk medicine as a local anesthetic. The bark is drunk in palm wine (cf. Cocos nucifera) to counteract poisoning and as a diuretic (Ayensu 1978, 222*).
The plant contains numerous indole alkaloids: mitragynine, ajmalicine, corynanthedin, isomitraphylline, mitraphylline, mitraversine, paynantheine, speciogynine, speciofoline, speciophylline, stipulatine (= rotundifoline), rhynchophylline, mitragynaline, corynantheidinaline, mitragynalinic acid, and corynantheidinalinic acid (Beckett, Shellard, Philipson, and Lee 1965; Beckett, Shellard, and Tackie 1965; Houghton et al. 1991; Tyler 1966, 286*).
The main active constituent, mitragynine (66% of the total alkaloid mixture), is present especially in the leaves. Young leaves of plants of Thai origin contain 7α-hydroxy-7H-mitragynine (1.6% of the total alkaloid mixture) (Ponglux et al. 1994). A total of approximately 0.5% alkaloids is present in the dried leaves (Beckett, Shellard, and Tackie 1965, 242). A new indole alkaloid, 3-dehydromitragynine, was discovered in the fresh leaves (Houghton and Said 1986).
Mitragynine is chemically related to psilocybin and other ergot alkaloids (D. McKenna 1995, 102*), e.g., alstovenine (cf. Alstonia scholaris). Mitraphylline and isomitraphylline belong to the yohimbinetype (Ponglux et al. 1994).
The fresh leaves also contain (–)-epicathechine. Several flavonoids are present in the dried leaves. Both the dried and the fresh leaves have been found to contain ursolic acid (Said et al. 1991).
The alkaloid mitraspecine is present in the wood and bark (Beckett, Shellard, and Tackie 1965).
Several of these alkaloids also occur in other species (e.g., Mitragyna parvifolia) (Jansen and Prast 1988, 115; Shellard 1974, 1983).
Self-experiments, the descriptions contained in the literature, and the pharmacological properties of the constituents indicate that the effects of kratom are simultaneously stimulating like those of coca (Erythroxylum coca) and sedating like those of opium (see Papaver somniferum)—in other words, paradoxical (Ponglux et al. 1994). Kratom’s effect is as if one were chewing coca while smoking opium (Jansen and Prast 1988). When fresh leaves are chewed, the stimulating effects can begin in as soon as five to ten minutes (Suwanlert 1975).
The pure alkaloid mitragynine has the following primary effects: “a) increase in the excitability of the cranio-sacral and sympathetic portion of the involuntary nervous system, b) increase in the excitability of the medulla and the motor centers of the CNS” (Scholz and Eigner 1983, 75*). These are indeed indications of a paradoxical substance (cf. Grewal 1932a, 1932b; Jansen and Prast 1988). The effects of mitragynine have even been compared to those of codeine (Macko et al. 1972).
The alleged kratom addiction is said to be a Thai cultural phenomenon (Jansen and Prast 1988, 117).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Although the plant does not produce addiction per se, it does alter behavior, and it is now illegal in Thailand (D. McKenna 1995, 102*; Said et al. 1991; Schuldes 1995, 52*). Apart from this, the plant is not subject to any regulations. Unfortunately, no commercial forms are available.
See also the entries for Alstonia scholaris and indole alkaloids.
Beckett, A. H., E. J. Shellard, J. D. Philipson, and M. L. Calvin. 1966. The Mitragyna species of Asia Part IV: Oxindole alkaloids from the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa Korth. Planta Medica 14:266–76.
Beckett, A. H., E. J. Shellard, J. D. Philipson, and C. M. Lee. 1965. Alkaloids from Mitragyne speciosa (Korth.). Journal of Pharmaceutical Pharmacology 17:753–55.
Beckett, A. H., E. J. Shellard, and A. N. Tackie. 1965. The Mitragyna species of Asia—the alkaloids of the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa Korth.: Isolation of mitragynine and speciofoline. Planta Medica 13 (2): 241–46.
Field, E. J. 1921. Mitragynine and mitraversine, two new alkaloids from species of Mitragyne. Transactions of the Chemical Society 119:887–91.
Grewal, K. S. 1932a. The effect of mitragynine on man. British Journal of Medical Psychology 12:41–58.
———. 1932b. Observations on the pharmacology of mitragynine. The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 46:251–71.
Houghton, Peter J., Aishah Latiff, and Ikram M. Said. 1991. Alkaloids of Mitragyna speciosa. Phytochemistry 30 (1): 347–50.
Houghton, Peter J., and Ikram M. Said. 1986. 3-dehydromitragynine: An alkaloid from Mitragyna speciosa. Phytochemistry 25: 2910–2912.
Jansen, Karl L. R., and Colin J. Prast. 1988. Ethnopharmacology of kratom and the Mitragyna alkaloids. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 23:115–119.
Macko, E., J. A. Weisbach, and B. Douglas. 1972. Some observations on the pharmacology of mitragyne. Archive International de Pharmacodynamie 198:145–61.
McMakin, Patrick D. 1993. Flowering plants of Thailand: A field guide. Bangkok: White Lotus.
Ponglux, Dhavadee, Sumphan Wongseripipatana, Hiromitsu Takayama, Masae Kikuchi, Mika Kurihara, Mariko Kitajima, Norio Aimi, and Shin-ichiro Sakai. 1994. A new indole alkaloid, 7α-hydroxy-7H-mitragynine, from Mitragyna speciosa in Thailand. Planta Medica 60:580–81.
Said, Ikram M., Ng Chee Chun, and Peter J. Houghton. 1991. Ursolic acid from Mitragyna speciosa. Planta Medica 57:398.
Shellard, E. J. 1974. The alkaloids of Mitragyna with special reference to those of M. speciosa Korth. Bulletin of Narcotics 26:41–54.
———. 1983. Mitragyna: A note on the alkaloids of African species. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 8:345–47.
Suwanlert, S. 1975. A study of kratom eaters in Thailand. Bulletin of Narcotics 27:21–27.
Wray, L. 1907a. “Biak”: An opium substitute. Journal of the Federated Malay States Museum 2:53.
———. 1907b. Notes on the anti-opium remedy. The Pharmaceutical Journal 78:453.