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This "Natural" Painkiller Is Sending People to the ER

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Chronic pain is, well, a chronic problem—a "silent epidemic." According to the Institute of Medicine, more than 100 million Americans live with pain on an almost daily basis. But most current prescription painkillers come with a host of problems like side effects and addiction. So it makes sense that more and more people would be looking for a natural solution. Unfortunately, one popular supplement that promises powerful pain relief is only adding to the problem.

ERs and poison control centers have seen a recent spike in overdoses of kratom, a tea or powder made from the leaves of a tree that grows in Thailand. Kratom is usually sold as a pain reliever, but it has also been found in formulations for weight loss and depression. (And this is how easy it is to make a weight-loss pill.) Scientists say the leaves act as a stimulant at low doses, and as a depressant at higher doses. The compounds in kratom have been found to trigger the same brain mechanisms as drugs like oxycodone and morphine. But this doesn't make kratom a safer version of these powerful drugs. In fact, it just makes it an unregulated one, according to a study published in the Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The CDC says that kratom cases have grown tenfold over the past five years and range in severity from mild symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and anxiety to more severe problems like seizures and heart irregularities. There has even been one death reported. They caution that the biggest problems seem to stem from combining kratom with other supplements, particularly stimulants and antidepressants, two of the most common classes of supplements on the market. And while the FDA has banned kratom from being imported into the U.S., the CDC reports it's still widely available on the internet.

Another worry is the question of exactly how much (if any) of the active ingredient is present, and if there are other substances not identified on the label. It's nearly impossible to know what you're getting as supplements are unregulated in the U.S. Recent reports have found that not only do the majority of supplements not contain exactly what they claim to, but many are causing terrible health problems on their own.

The moral of the story? Skip the self-medicating and talk to a doctor about other ways to manage your pain. (One study found that meditation and mindfulness training worked better for long-term pain than morphine!)