I first caught wind of kratom back in 2016, when filmmaker Chris Bell told me at that year’s Olympia Fitness and Performance Expo in Las Vegas how he was making a documentary entitled A Leaf of Faith. It was about the life-changing impact of kratom, or as it’s known in scientific circles, mitragyna speciosa, a plant that when ingested can apparently do everything from helping you kick an addiction to opioids to keeping you awake and attentive for hours on end. Bell, best known for his warts-and-all steroid documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, had been taking large daily doses of kratom, which he claimed had alleviated his incessant pains, and thus, killed his desire for painkillers. He wasn’t alone either — his friend Matt Wiese, who had wrestled in the WWE as Luther Reigns, attributed his freedom from opioid addiction to a steady diet of kratom tablets.
Bell and Wiese, like other heavy kratom users, are both true believers in the drug as well as utterly convinced that the Food and Drug Administration plans to criminalize its sale and distribution. They’re probably not wrong on the latter point: As with prior bro science essentials that show even the slightest hint of efficacy — like the androstenedione steroid hormone that helped Mark McGwire hit tape-measure home runs and enabled me to bench 405 pounds a few months shy of my 20th birthday — kratom seems destined for scheduling as a controlled substance. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services recently recommended a ban on the chemicals in kratom because they have a “high potential for abuse” coupled with “no currently accepted medical use.”
This isn’t true, of course. Researchers at the University of Florida who are featured in Bell’s documentary recently received a $4 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to continue studying whether kratom can help treat opioid dependence. Not to mention, the bevy of anecdotal evidence generated by recovering opioid addicts, whose numbers are growing by the day and who flock to Bell’s social media posts to describe how kratom saved their lives. (Like CBD oil, it’s probably something you’ve seen people posting about on social media, either extolling its benefits or speculating about its dangers.) Heck, a sub shop in Arizona, eager to corner that still-underserved market, even installed a kratom vending machine on the premises.
None of this, however, applies to me. I’ve never had so much as an ankle sprain, and I didn’t touch the oxycodone I was given after I had my wisdom teeth extracted in my late 20s. So I didn’t need to take kratom, at least not the way Bell and others did. Nonetheless, Urban Ice Organics, which partially underwrote the cost of A Leaf of Faith, sent me a six-month supply of the stuff. (A month’s worth of the flavorless powder, roughly 120 grams, will run you around $70 with shipping; to give it a little more taste, you can brew it like a tea and add loads of sugar or Stevia.) And since I had the merchandise in hand, I decided to give it the old college try, much as I had when offered complimentary ibutamoren (a research chemical that supposedly stimulates growth hormone secretion); various bulk packages of selective androgen receptor modulators (or “SARMS,” which may have androgenic effects similar to steroids); and even stem-cell therapy (for which I was flown to Slovakia, and after which, I most definitely did not develop a tumor).
If I’m being totally truthful here, I’ve taken just about every performance enhancer I could get my hands on, though often less of them and for a shorter time than recommended, because I was desperately hoping that each new medical marvel would be the pill, the potion or the powder that confirmed my highest hopes.
What can I say? Ever since I’ve been a little boy, I’ve loved taking pills and powders, loved getting injections and loved the practice of what seemed to me like high-level medicine. In short, my kratom journey, unlike Bell’s messianic pilgrimage in A Leaf of Faith or the fulsome Instagram posts he writes about its miraculous effects on his workouts, came down to me merely wanting to take kratom to see what it could do to my body. Plus, isn’t that kinda the point with this type of stuff — experimentation on the self, albeit on a much more modest scale, of the sort that steroid guru Dan Duchaine engaged in four decades ago?
All that said, I needed a kratom expert. And so, upon its arrival, I asked fitness journalist Anthony Roberts, who had been one of the main researchers on A Leaf of Faith, what dosage would give me some kind of elevated mood. “It all depends on what you’re using it for,” he told me. “I can’t feel the doses Joe Rogan talks about on his podcast, for example. However, two to four grams tossed and washed cause me to feel a mood elevation within the hour. It’s like whey protein. Nobody is going to see changes with 20 grams of whey protein a day. But take 100 grams a day, and replace 50 to 75 percent of your protein with whey, and you’ll see a difference.”
I then asked Roberts if it made sense for me, someone with zero injury history and no opioid abuse issues, to take the drug. “No, it’s an opioid, and I’m not in favor of anyone using anything in that family without cause,” he answered. “Why take an antidote for something you haven’t contracted? Are you going to take opioid-induced constipation medicine, too, despite never having used opioids? It doesn’t make sense. Abuse potential is very low, though, and lots of people can use it for months at a time, then miss a few days and not get any withdrawal symptoms.”
Next, I promptly proceeded to ignore Roberts’ advice and spend the next three months taking a two-gram morning dose of the various ground-up kratom leaves Urban Ice Organics had sent me. As Roberts mentioned, two grams is a decent amount of kratom in a single serving, but still four or five grams less than a heavy user like Chris Bell might consume in a day. The strains had different names, such as “maeng da” (said to be the strongest) and “red vein bali” (said to be “consistent” and “full bodied”). I’d pound my usual 64 ounces of cold coffee mixed with whey protein, then take some kratom and face the workouts that preceded my workday.
The results were, um, underwhelming. Besides the buckets of coffee, I’m running on so many grey-market stimulants that it’s often impossible to tell where one begins and another ends. If a pre-workout stimulant’s effects somehow provide a discernible stimulant signal among all that other jittery noise, then I assume it’s only a matter of time before that pre-workout is taken off the market and the owners of the company producing it are arrested.
Still, kratom, I’m sad to report, gave me no notable extra vigor and eased no pain. Perhaps it cut my post-workout soreness somewhat, but honestly, I’m not sure. I generally avoid ibuprofen, given that reducing inflammation can also inhibit muscle growth, so I’ve grown accustomed to a certain level of day-after discomfort. Its non-impact, though, didn’t stop me from taking it. If anything, I was completely determined to run through my entire supply, insistent on figuring out what about it had changed the lives of people like Chris Bell and Matt Wiese.
There was also the specter of impending banishment. That is, kratom has been on the federal chopping blog for a while now. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the FDA, who resigned in March, had been a long-time anti-kratom propagandist, claiming prior to his recent resignation that the drug is “associated with” 40 or so deaths, and arguing that it has no “effective medical use.” “The Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency often try to exercise their administrative power to subvert the legislative branch and outlaw dietary supplements without going through Congress,” Roberts explains. “Kratom, ephedrine, prohormones and DMAA have been pushed off the market just by their sending warning letters en masse, causing companies to discontinue their production as a precautionary measure.”
But alas, even after exhausting my whole stash — taking it exactly as instructed for three full months — I never experienced Bell’s or Wiese’s eureka moment. There were neither negative side effects nor positive ones. It was kinda nothing at all. Not a panacea. Not a magic bullet. Not that ever-elusive One True Drug. Not even a jittery addition to my pre-workout routine. So in the end, all it really left me with was yet another empty pill bottle.