Kratom in sports: Is this a growing issue?

By Stephen Daniells contact

- Last updated on GMT

Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa). Image © iStock/ninoninos
Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa). Image © iStock/ninoninos

Related tags: World anti-doping agency, Controlled substances act

A new paper in Drug Testing & Analysis calls for increased vigilance from anti-doping testing labs after four samples from athletes in strength sports tested positive in 2015.

Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa​) is an herb that is a member of the coffee family and that is native to Southeast Asia. Kratom is not a prohibited substance on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited List, but mitragynine (one of the bioactives in the plant) has been on the WADA Monitoring program since 2014 as a narcotic, meaning it’s not allowed during competition time.

At lower doses (between 1 and 5 grams) the herb reportedly acts as a stimulant, whereas at higher doses (between 5 and 15 grams) the effects are analgesic and opioid-like. (It is these pain relief properties that has produced a passionate following among some consumers in the US, along with the potential to help in weaning people away from addiction to opioid pain killers.)

The new paper in Drug Testing & Analysis​, authored by scientists from the German Sport University Cologne, reports that the first Kratom case in professional sports was documented last year: “In 2015, during a major international sports event, the first real case was discovered while analyzing in-competition doping control specimens, originating from male athletes sampled at the same strength sports discipline,”​ they wrote.

Applying a validated LC-MS/MS screening assay, the authors note that an abundance of signals for “mitragynine and desmethyl-mitragynine were detected in four doping control samples”​.

Further analysis confirmed the presence of many metabolites in the urine samples, thereby confirming the use of kratom by the athletes.

“The widespread use and the increasing popularity of Kratom as a recreational drug forced regulative anti-doping bodies to monitor mitragynine (Kratom) to gain information of its current use in professional sports,” ​wrote the authors.

“… Kratom's stimulating as well as analgesic effects might be beneficial for performance enhancement. However, athletes should be aware that the use of Kratom has potential side effects.

“Therefore, a thorough monitoring by anti-doping laboratories should move forward in order to obtain a global view of Kratom's misuse in professional sports and to protect athletes from potential health hazards.”

A spokesperson for the US Anti-Doping Agency told us it is not investigating the use of kratom in athletes in the US: Such investigations are conducted by WADA.

The study was funded by Antidoping Switzerland, the Manfred Donike Institute for Doping Analysis e.V. in Cologne, and the Federal Ministry of the Interior of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Kratom in the US market

Kratom is noted for its pain relief properties and has been mentioned as being helpful in weaning people away from addiction to opioid pain killers.

FDA placed a ban on the import of the herb in 2014, but reportedly large quantities are still showing up on the market and being sold as dietary supplements.​ 

Proponents of the herb have come together to form an industry association, the American Kratom Association, and an advocacy group called the Botanical Education Alliance, which was previously known as Botanical Legal Defense. The group has worked to advocate for the legality of the kratom trade and the use of the herb at the state level and successfully forestalled a move to criminalize the herb in Florida.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration proposed in August 2016 to temporarily place mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, the main psychoactive constituents of kratom into schedule I pursuant to the temporary scheduling provisions of the Controlled Substances Act. As there are no kratom ingredients on the market in which these substances have been removed, the action would have the same effect as listing the whole plant on schedule 1, as had been done back in the day with cannabis.

The emergency listing drew a broad bipartisan response. Two letters were sent to DEA by Senators, one signed by nine Senators​ including Orrin Hatch, R-UT and Bernie Sanders, D-VT and the other signed by three​, including Cory Booker, D-NJ.  A letter also came from the House that was signed by 45 Representatives​ including Ted Poe, R-TX and Jared Polis, D-CO.  The content of the three letters was similar, with lawmakers urging DEA to follow the formal procedure which would allow adequate time for stakeholders to weigh in and would require DEA to outline the evidence that caused it to take this decision.

Source: Drug Testing & Analysis
Volume 8, Issue 11-12, Pages: 1114–1118, doi: 10.1002/dta.1970
“Mitragynine (Kratom) - monitoring in sports drug testing”
Authors: S. Guddat, et al.

Related topics: Research, Sports nutrition, Botanicals

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