- Wellness beverages containing kratom may be dangerous, especially to people with addictive disease.
- Kratom is derived from leaves of a tree in the coffee family and stimulates opioid receptors.
- Bottles of Feel Free contain no warning that they contain an opiate-like substance. Anyone with a sensitivity to opiates should beware.
The title of this post comes from a San Francisco Chronicle article (April 6, 2023)  detailing why an alcoholic man sued Botanic Tonics, the makers of the “wellness drink” Feel Free, alleging it caused him to relapse after seven years of sobriety. He claims the Santa Monica company misrepresents Feel Free as a “safe, sober, and healthy alternative to alcohol.”
A quick internet search reveals Botanic Tonics does, indeed, advertise, “We’ve created a feel-good wellness tonic, a healthy productivity enhancer, and alcohol alternative featuring kava and other ancient plants from the South Pacific and Southeast Asia where they’ve been used socially and in wellness for centuries. A new way to feel good and feel free. Enjoy.”
What Botanic Tonics’ above description fails to reveal is that one of their ancient plant-based ingredients is kratom, which comes from the leaf of a tropical evergreen tree in the coffee family. Elements in kratom activate opiate receptors in the brain while also having stimulant qualities. I first encountered kratom roughly 15 years ago when a patient fighting Vicodin addiction reported he had been buying kratom online from Southeast Asian sources. When he tried to stop using kratom, his withdrawal symptoms were nearly identical to withdrawal from Vicodin. I prescribed buprenorphine (Suboxone) to ease his withdrawal, just as we had done when he stopped Vicodin, with equal benefit. I wrote a brief article in the California Society of Addiction Medicine newsletter describing how kratom is simply one more way to develop an opiate addiction.
The unfortunate sober alcoholic who picked up a bottle of Feel Free at his local 7-Eleven claims he was soon drinking 10 bottles a day. When he tried to stop Feel Free, vomiting, delirium, and psychosis led him to twice visit a hospital emergency department, he says. He alleges eventually relapsing on alcohol to control withdrawal symptoms from Feel Free, followed by admission to detox and rehab.
While Feel Free lists both kava and kratom as ingredients on its bottle, it does not provide amounts of each, nor does it warn of potential addiction and withdrawal. To be fair, Botanic Tonics’ website recommends drinking no more than one bottle a day and the site does list the ingredients and their amount in Feel Free, as follows:
- Kava (root) – 1,700 mg.
- Kratom (leaf) – 3,500 mg.
- Vitamin C – 37 mg.
- Potassium – 169 mg.
- Iron – 0.3 mg.
- Other Ingredients: Pineapple Juice, Coconut Cream, Stevia Leaf
However, nothing on the website indicates kratom has opiate qualities or is addictive. Besides, who routinely visits the website of every new beverage they try?
I contacted Botanic Tonics to discuss Feel Free and had a pleasant conversation with J.W. Ross, the developer of Feel Free and founder of Botanic Tonics. He was eager to relate his own story of alcohol addiction and what he called social anxiety when he abstained. Feeling he needed a safe replacement for alcohol to feel comfortable, he developed the mixture of kava and kratom after years of study and research. When friends confirmed it increased “sociability, productivity, and calm energy,” Ross launched Feel Free as a wellness beverage. He seemed genuinely interested in providing an alternative to more harmful drugs so many people gravitate toward and noted that a new bottle label will soon include a more detailed list of ingredients.
The new label he sent contains more detail but is ultimately more confusing. It lists:
“Kratom leaf (ground)
Total Alkaloids 34mg
I wrote back that few people know what mitragynine and 7-hydtoxymitragynine are, and, amid a serious opioid epidemic, with so many people struggling with recovery from opiate addiction, the makers of Feel Free have the responsibility to inform the public that kratom has opiate-like qualities.
The new bottle label also reads “Note: Anything that makes you feel good can become habit-forming including nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and kratom… If used responsibly, Feel Free has not been shown to cause any harm.”
I replied that alcohol and kratom addiction are qualitatively different from a habit. People often use the word “habit” to soften the reality of addiction and dependence.
Finally, new text reads “This product is not recommended for pregnant or nursing women or people who are sensitive to active ingredients like kava.”
I responded that it would be stronger to make a clear prohibition against using Feel Free during pregnancy. I also made a strong recommendation to add “or kratom” after warning about sensitivity to kava.
The disappointing response from J.W. Ross to my suggestions for revised text on the bottle label was:
“One of the main issues we have is the amount of space on the bottle… without getting the font so small it can’t be clearly seen. That said, we will continue to improve over time.”
Perhaps they will improve. Only time will tell. As for now, however, they are not protecting the public as much as they should, despite being given enough information about the hazards of kratom and their responsibility to do no harm.
Feel Free is not safe for everyone. It contains an addictive drug that is especially dangerous for individuals with a tendency toward addiction. It can be a trap door back into addiction for unsuspecting people in recovery who are simply looking for a beverage to support wellness. Considering the amount of kratom in Feel Free, a microdose is only a rhetorical trick.
Beware: Feel Free is not the only “wellness” beverage containing kratom. Some cannabis beverages also contain kratom, and many products contain far more kratom than Feel Free. While it sounds best to visit the website for any new beverage you are thinking of trying, this can also be misleading. One cannabis retailer describes the effect of kratom as offering natural “pain relief, energy, immune boost, and focus.”
My recommendation? Tell all your healthcare team, patients, and friends to be aware of products containing kratom that advertise as “wellness beverages.”
Yamamoto, L.T, et al, Opioid receptor agonistic characteristics of mitragyninecpseudoindoxyl in comparison with mitragynine derived from Thai medicinaplant Mitragyna speciosa, Gen Pharmacol. 1999 Jul;33(1):73-81.