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Miracle plant or threat? Kratom users say it helps addiction, pain

Florida resident Ali Noble has a 2-year-old boy and is a recovered opioid addict and a frequent victim of panic attacks. She credits her sobriety and serenity to working the 12 steps and a little green leaf getting a lot of attention from the federal government in the past few years — kratom.

>> Read more trending news

When she left substance abuse treatment in September 2014, the Boynton Beach resident received Suboxone. Used routinely for the treatment of opioid addiction, Noble’s experience with Suboxone almost drove her back to drug addiction, she said.

“Suboxone is 10 times harder than heroin to kick. Thank God I knew of kratom,” Noble said. “I was a zombie. I was a dead person walking. I couldn’t comprehend thoughts. It was not pretty and I wanted to be productive. Who wants to be like that?”

The Food and Drug Administration in a November public health advisory said kratom was a health risk and may contribute to the opioid crisis. Many kratom users believe the agency was clearing the way for the Drug Enforcement Agency to revisit banning the plant, which can be purchased at kava bars, vape shops and even gas station convenience stores.

In Palm Beach County, a Delray Beach woman has made it a crusade to regulate kratom, saying it led to her son’s suicide. The New York Times two years ago visited Palm Beach County for a story on kratom, painting it as a new addictive substance taking the kava bars by storm. CNN, though, countered in October with its own report, asking, “Can the kratom plant help fix the opioid crisis?”

Christopher McCurdy, president of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, is one of the foremost experts on kratom and is a professor at the University of Florida. He has said there is a wealth of information that shows the medical potential for the plant.

He told CNN that the debate about kratom is really a debate about profits for pharmaceutical companies, partly because they can’t patent a plant. “There’s no financial incentive for any drug company to really pursue developing this into a drug,” he said.

Kratom proponents say Big Pharma is behind it being unfairly demonized. Kratom users are on fire to get the word out about what they say is a good alternative to prescription pain medication for a host of ailments, such as fibromyalgia, and has helped addicts get off opioids. They are not opposed to regulation but say that making kratom illegal would fly in the face of common sense — and science.

They say they fear the FDA is carrying water for the pharmaceutical industry, which makes billions off the sale of opioid painkillers like OxyContin and anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax.

“There are many pharmaceutical companies who find kratom threatening,” Noble said. “There are few big ones who can lose lots of money if this becomes more popular.”

In South Florida, where there is a large drug recovery community, kratom also poses a paradox. For some recovered alcoholics and drug addicts, it’s a mind-altering substance and using it is akin to a relapse. For others, it is no worse than coffee, cigarettes or caffeinated energy drinks — all of which populate 12-step meetings.

For some kratom users, the drug has been a godsend.

When Noble was pregnant with her son, her anxiety got to the point that she asked her OB-GYN if was OK to drink kratom. He gave his consent.

“I can do kratom and in 10 minutes feel better,” she said. “With prescription medication, if you are in mid-panic attack, it’s like a half an hour to kick in.”

When The Palm Beach Post reported the FDA’s decision, the reaction from kratom users in the comment section was swift:

“This plant has saved so many lives and improved quality of life for so many,” posted a reader. Another commented: “I have depression, bipolar, CMT, degenerative disc disease and anxiety. Kratom helps me with all of it. … This stuff saved my life.”

Kristina Guerriero was one of those who posted comments. On her Facebook page, she has one profile photo with the tagline #Iamkratom.

“I have def benefited from kratom — more for anxiety use,” she said in a text interview. “I do not have a history of drug abuse or alcoholism. I merely use kratom to help with energy and really bad anxiety. I managed to come off my antidepressants. It has changed my life.”

One of the more adamant proponents of kratom in South Florida is attorney Elizabeth Gardener. The owner of two kava bars in North Carolina is ready with numerous examples of users — including law enforcement — who take it for chronic pain. She says it can be a vital tool in harm reduction when it comes to fighting the opioid epidemic.

“They feel it is the reason they are not using. There is no desire to go out to use,” she said. “I saw a woman change her entire life in just a couple years. She just blossomed. I see healing going on.”

She said kratom has also helped those in chronic pain who couldn’t work because they were on painkillers.

Gardener drank kratom for the first time on her birthday in 2011. She wanted to celebrate it in a place that didn’t serve alcohol and ended up at the kava bar.

“I saw the environment. They weren’t stumbling. They weren’t fighting. You could have a conversation there,” she said. “There was a mix of all types of people.”

The social scene at the kava bar allows people in recovery to enjoy camaraderie in an alcohol-free environment, Noble said.

“I met my fiance at a kava bar and I’ve met the majority of my best friends there,” she said. “It really is a family. I know if I’m in need of any shape or form, someone there would help me.”

Now there is one aspect of kratom that is fairly agreed upon. It tastes awful. The Mitragyna speciosa plant is in the coffee family, hails from Southeast Asia, and is often mixed with water or brewed into a tea. It can also be put in capsules and taken like a pill.

“Everybody is panicked,” Gardener said. “They are worried how they are going to continue with their life because if they stop drinking the tea, they are going to feel the pain or not be able to sleep as good at night.”

The DEA put the kratom debate into overdrive in 2016 when it tried to designate it as a Schedule 1 controlled substance on the same level as heroin or LSD. The agency backpedaled after congressional lawmakers urged the agency to give the public a chance to comment.

Then in November the FDA said calls to U.S. poison control centers regarding kratom increased 10-fold from 2010 to 2015, and attributed 36 deaths associated with products containing kratom. The federal government also reports that acetaminophen — the active painkiller in Tylenol — killed 1,500 people between 2001 and 2010.

The FDA concluded that kratom could make the opioid epidemic worse.

“We have a critical point in the opioid epidemic,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. “The increasing use of kratom as an alternative or adjunct to opioid use is extremely concerning.”

Marc Swogger, an associate professor in University of Rochester Medical Center, said there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that government moving to make kratom illegal “doesn’t make any sense.”

“People are reporting that they are using kratom to successfully get off of opioids,” he said. “It helps with the withdrawal symptoms and helps them dial back their opioid use and some of them say it helped them quick.”

Swogger said kratom, like caffeine or any drug, does have its own withdrawal and that studies through controlled trials need to look at the plant objectively.

“The science is in its infancy,” he said. “But cutting it off as an option is hurting people and potentially worsening the opioid crisis.”

In Palm Beach County, the person most associated with kratom is Linda Mautner, who blames the plant for leading to her son’s July 2014 suicide. She has lobbied the County Commission to ban it or at least force businesses that sell it to post warnings.

Mautner is a lightning rod for kratom proponents, but there is common ground. Mautner says kratom users have no idea what they are getting because it is unregulated. Noble agrees and would welcome regulation to make sure that kratom sold is pure.

“There is some bogus stuff coming from companies trying to jump on the bandwagon,” she said. “I’m all for some kind of system where it has to pass a test to be sold in the U.S. and not having anything in it. I hate that there are some companies that are trying to take advantage of good people just trying to find relief.”

Pedialyte for a hangover? Company says yes

Did you party too much? If you have a hangover, Pedialyte wants you to turn to its drink for relief.

The hydration drink, usually targeted at infants and children, also aims to alleviate your nausea, dry mouth and pounding headache. 

The company says its drink is for both kids and adults for rehydration as part of its “see the lyte” campaign.

>> Read more trending news 

Dr. Robert Swift, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University told NBC News that hangovers are complicated, and no one cure fits all.

“The thing about Pedialyte, Gatorade and things like that, there is an optimal concentration to absorb glucose and electrolytes and fluid from the intestines,” he said. 

According to Nielsen research, adults are now a third of Pedialyte’s users, and adults have increased their use of Pedialyte 57 percent since 2012, NBC News reported.

Florida surgeons to remove 10-pound tumor from Cuban boy's face

What began as a mere pimple on his son's face two years ago has grown into a life-threatening 10-pound tumor, Emanuel Zayas' father said.

The Zayas family, who live in Cuba, received a medical visa so the 14-year-old boy can have a complex procedure performed by surgeons in Miami, the Miami Herald reported. Dr. Robert Marx, chief of oral and maxillofacial surgery for the University of Miami Health System, said the tumor is life-threatening because of its weight and its position, which is pressing down on the boy's trachea.

>> Read more trending news 

Zayas has trouble getting nourishment because of the tumor, and Marx said if left untreated, the tumor could fracture the boy's neck. The tumor is not cancerous, doctors said.

It will take a surgical team approximately 12 hours to perform the surgery, the Miami Herald reported. Zayas will face future surgeries to reconstruct facial features.

The cost of the surgery is expected to be approximately $200,000. The Jackson Health Foundation is raising money on the family's behalf to help cover medical costs. According to the foundation, Zayas was "born with a disorder called polyostotic fibrous dysplasia, a condition that replaces multiple areas of bones with fibrous tissue and may cause fractures and deformity of the legs, arms, and skull." 

The surgery will take place Jan. 12 at Holtz Children's Hospital, the Miami Herald reported.

Woman gives birth to baby frozen as embryo for 24 years

A Tennessee woman gave birth last month to a baby girl who was frozen as an embryo in 1992, when her mother was just a year old.

Tina and Benjamin Gibson became the proud parents of Emma Wren on Nov. 25. Emma weighed a healthy 6 pounds, 8 ounces and measured 20 inches long. 

According to staff at the University of Tennessee Preston Medical Library, Emma holds the all-time record for the longest-frozen embryo to come to birth.

The Gibsons had Emma through the National Embryo Donation Center, a faith-based embryo adoption program in which couples hoping to conceive are paired with embryos that will not be used by their genetic parents. The NEDC said in a news release that it has received donated embryos from all 50 states, as well as foreign countries. 

A “baby counter” on the NEDC website tallies its live births at 686 babies. 

Emma was frozen in October 1992, when Tina Gibson, 26, was 18 months old. The embryo was thawed in March of this year and implanted two days later. 

“Emma is such a sweet miracle,” Benjamin Gibson said, according to the news release. “I think she looks pretty perfect to have been frozen all those years ago.”

Carol Sommerfelt, director of the NEDC’s lab, thawed the embryos implanted into Tina Gibson’s uterus. Sommerfelt said it was “deeply moving and highly rewarding” to see embryos frozen using early cryopreservation techniques survive.

“I will always remember what the Gibsons said when presented with a picture of their embryos at the time of transfer: ‘These embryos could have been my best friends,’ as Tina herself was only 25 at the time of transfer,” Sommerfelt said

>> Read more trending news

The organization’s website lists its overall pregnancy rate per transfer at 57 percent. About 49 percent of transfers result in live birth.

About three-fourths of the donated embryos survive the freezing and thawing process, the website states

Dr. Jeffrey Keenan, medical director of the NEDC, said the organization was privileged to help the couple become parents.

“We hope this story is a clarion call to all couples who have embryos in long-term storage to consider this life-affirming option for their embryos,” Keenan said

CVS agrees to buy insurance giant Aetna

CVS has agreed to buy Aetna in a $69 billion deal, The New York Times reported.

>> Read more trending news

The deal would combine the drugstore chain with one of the United States’ largest health insurers.

Under the terms of the deal, CVS will pay about $207 a share, the Times reported, quoting an anonymous source. Roughly $145 a share of that would be in cash, with the remainder in newly issued CVS stock.

An announcement could come later Sunday, the Times reported.

The deal would transform CVS’ 9,700 pharmacy storefronts into community medical hubs for primary care and basic procedures, The Washington Post reported.

If approved, the merger would allow CVS to provide a broad range of health services to Aetna’s 22 million medical members at its nationwide network of pharmacies and walk-in clinics, the Post reported.

“I think it will create more consolidation among the insurers and retailers, blurring the lines,” Ana Gupte, an analyst at Leerink Partners, told the Post.

Mother of two dies just day after flu diagnosis

A young mother of two in Arizona died just one day after receiving a flu diagnosis, devastated family members said.

Alani Murrieta, 20, was diagnosed with the flu Monday and died Tuesday in the hospital, family members told KSAZ.

>> Read more trending news

Murrieta, the mother of a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old, was healthy before the sudden illness, with no pre-existing health conditions, according to family. She first experienced symptoms Sunday, when she left work early. On Monday, she went to urgent care, where she was diagnosed with the flu and sent home with medications. She was admitted to the hospital Tuesday morning as her symptoms became more severe and she was having difficulty breathing, KSAZ reported.

At the hospital, doctors performed tests and diagnosed Murrieta with pneumonia. She was placed on a ventilator, but her heart stopped. The efforts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful.

While family members said Murrieta didn't get a flu shot, early results show this year's formula may not be very effective at combatting this year's flu strains.

Librarians learning to administer Narcan to stop heroin, opioid overdoses

Staff members at the New Orleans Public Library had life-saving training this week as they learned how to administer a drug that can stop a drug overdose in its tracks.

NOLA.com reported that librarians and staff on Wednesday received a lesson on naloxone, a Food and Drug Administration-approved drug that reverses an overdose of opioids, including heroin and pain medications like morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone. The training was provided by the New Orleans Health Department.

>> Read more trending news

Library administrators reached out for the naloxone training as libraries and other public agencies across the country receive training on dealing with the fallout of the opioid epidemic.

“Anyone who is regularly in contact with the public should know how to use it,” Dr. Joseph Kanter, director of the Health Department, told NOLA.com.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, naloxone, which is also known by the brand name Narcan, blocks a person’s opioid receptor sites and reverses the toxic effects of the drug overdose. Naloxone can be administered through a nasal spray, by intramuscular or subcutaneous injection or through an IV injection. 

What is Narcan? 12 things to know about the drug

Naloxone is also used in the treatment of addiction. It is combined with buprenorphine to form the drug Suboxone, which is used to wean addicts off narcotics.

WGNO in New Orleans reported that the training participants included more than 50 staff members from all 14 library branches in the city, which officials say has been hit hard by the opioid crisis. The city saw 166 opioid deaths in 2016.

It was the first time in the city’s history that drug overdose deaths surpassed homicides, the news station reported. Statewide, Louisiana’s rate of opioid overdoses was above the national average. 

Training for the library staff included learning how to recognize an opiate overdose and how to administer naloxone in the form of nasal spray. Participants in the training said administering the drug was simple.

“You literally take off three colored pieces, screw something on, screw the other part and you’re ready to go,” participant Marta Siuba told WGNO.

New Orleans is not the first major city to start training its librarians to help battle the overdose crisis. Public libraries in Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco have all trained their staff members to become first responders when patrons overdose. 

With the uptick in deadly opioid overdoses, there has been a spate of fatal overdoses in libraries across the nation, CNN reported in June. Libraries are often daytime places of refuge for the homeless, and they offer vital services needed by residents in poor communities. 

“We have to figure out quickly the critical steps that people have to take so we can be partners in the solution of this problem,” American Library Association president Julie Todaro told CNN

Charles Brown, executive director of the New Orleans Public Library, told WGNO that he hopes to make library space available in the future for public training in the administration of naloxone. 

“This is just a pervasive issue in our community, and the library wants to be as helpful and proactive as possible,” Brown said

Could medical marijuana help fight the opioid epidemic?

New research suggests medical cannabis may play a key role in ending the opioid epidemic plaguing the nation.

>> Read more trending news

The findings from Aclara Research, a cannabis patient and consumer insights group, come soon after President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in the U.S. as an estimated 175 Americans die from opioids each day.

The study, which will be released in full in early 2018, was conducted in partnership with pharmacists active in the cannabis industry and included online surveys of more than 400 patients using prescription opioids nationwide.

» RELATED: Trump declares US opioid emergency but pledges no new money

Researchers also examined 500 pharmacists’ perceptions of medical cannabis and its role in the industry.

According to the Aclara study, the preliminary findings showed that 67 percent of the patients stopped using opioid medications after using medical cannabis.

» RELATED: Walgreens to begin selling OTC Narcan to combat opioid epidemic

And another 29 percent reported a decrease in the number of opioid medications used after starting medical cannabis.

Thirty percent of the patients said they stopped using any and all prescription drugs after using medical marijuana.

» RELATED: US gun death rate up for second straight year, drug deaths rising faster than ever

Of the 500 pharmacists surveyed, 87 percent said medical cannabis should be legalized, and 69 percent said pharmacists should dispense medical cannabis and counsel patients on medical cannabis use.

Another recent study, published in the Public Library of Science last week, found opioid users were more likely to stop usage if they had access to medical marijuana.

» RELATED: What is fentanyl? 10 things to know about the potentially deadly drug

That study involved 66 patients using opioids to treat chronic pain. Over a 21-month period, patients who used medical cannabis were 17 times more likely to stop using opioids, and patients who didn’t use cannabis on average increased their opioid use by 10 percent over that time period, according to the research. 

Research from 2014, published in the Journal of the American Medical Associationalso found states that had legalized medical marijuana saw lower rates of fatal opioid overdoses.

Aclara researchers said they will continue to collect data and examine the results in conjunction with additional pharmacy partners. The study’s final results will be released in January 2018.

Read more about the study at aclararesearch.com.

Dog owners less likely to die of heart attacks, study suggests

Owning a dog could quite literally save your life, a new study has revealed.

>> Read more trending news

Dog owners who live alone have a 36 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease than those without dogs. When it comes to dog owners who live with family members, the risk decreases by 15 percent.

"A very interesting finding in our study was that dog ownership was especially prominent as a protective factor in persons living alone, which is a group reported previously to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death than those living in a multi-person household," Mwenya Mubanga, a study author and PhD student at Uppsala University in Sweden, told CNN.

» RELATED: This Texas woman’s heart literally broke when her dog died, doctors say

Published in “Scientific Reports,” the study was conducted by researchers in Sweden who examined medical and pet ownership records of 3.4 million people. Those analyzed by the study were between 40 and 80 years old. Participants were followed for up to 12 years, with around 13 percent owning pet dogs.

Researchers also noted that individuals who owned dogs originally bred for hunting, such as terriers, retrievers and scent hounds, saw even greater benefits. It's unclear exactly why this is, but researchers suggest that these breeds require more exercise, meaning the owner is necessarily more active and healthier.

» RELATED: Research shows why kids feel the loss of a pet so deeply

However, while the study clearly shows correlation between dog ownership and better heart health, it may not necessarily prove causation.

"These kind of epidemiological studies look for associations in large populations but do not provide answers on whether and how dogs could protect from cardiovascular disease," Tove Fall, a professor at Uppsala University and senior author of the study, told the BBC.

» RELATED: Research shows why kids feel the loss of a pet so deeply

"There might also be differences between owners and non-owners already before buying a dog, which could have influenced our results, such as those people choosing to get a dog tending to be more active and of better health."

At the same time, previous research has also pointed to the positive health benefits of owning dogs. For example, one study showed that children with dogs at home had a 15 percent reduced risk of asthma. Authors of that study suggested this was due to the "hygiene hypothesis," which posits that too clean of an environment actually increases an individual's susceptibility to allergies.

» RELATED: Sheriff: Toddler’s dog stayed with him while he was missing

In fact, the authors of the new study also said a possible reason for the positive effect of dogs on the heart may be connected to bacteria. According to the researchers, dogs actually change the dirt in their owners’ environment, meaning they may also influence their owner's bacterial microbiome. This collection of microscopic species lives in the gut and may benefit cardiovascular health.

But perhaps the biggest factor the research points to is the social aspect of owning a dog.

» RELATED: Ever wonder why dogs are so darn friendly? Science says it’s in their genes

"[Dog ownership] may encourage owners to improve their social life, and that in itself will reduce their stress level, which we know absolutely is a primary cause for cardiovascular disease and cardiac events," Dr. Rachel Bond, associate director of women's heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told CNN.

And of course, dogs definitely increase an individual's overall happiness.

» RELATED: 7 dog hacks for pet parents in the city 

"As many dog owners may agree, the main reason for owning a dog is the sheer joy," Dr. Mike Knapton of the British Heart Foundation told BBC.

"Dog ownership has many benefits, and we may now be able to count better heart health as one of them,” she said.

» RELATED: Do people care more about suffering dogs than suffering humans?

Energy drinks pose serious and scary health risks, scientific review shows

Although energy drinks may provide the boost you need to make it through a long day, that extra push may come with far more negative side effects than you realized.

» RELATED: Coroner: Caffeine overdose from soda, coffee and energy drink led to death of S.C. teen

Mental health problems, risk-seeking behavior, increased blood pressure, obesity, tooth erosion, adverse cardiovascular effect and kidney damage are some of the many negative health consequences linked to energy drinks, a recently published review of scientific articles on the topic has revealed. Furthermore, these risks are often hidden by clever marketing and a lack of regulation.

"The negative health effects associated with energy drinks (ED) are compounded by a lack of regulatory oversight and aggressive marketing by the industry toward adolescents," authors wrote in the article published in “Frontiers in Public Health.”

» RELATED: How dangerous are energy drinks, really? Study finds link to serious heart problems

According to one of the review's coauthors, the problems associated with the drinks are so numerous, even the researchers were surprised.

"The wide range of conditions that energy drinks can negatively impact was quite astounding," study author Josiemer Mattei, assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Men's Health.

Energy drinks contain excessive amounts of several key ingredients that lead to adverse effects, according to the review. The drinks' high amounts of sugar, caffeine and stimulants such as guarana all can cause a variety of negative health consequences.

» RELATED: The truth about the dangers of dietary supplements

"The excess caffeine may contribute to cardiovascular outcomes, such as increased blood pressure," Mattei told Yahoo News.

Whereas caffeine has also been linked to health benefits, a recommended daily limit is 400 milligrams for adults. Energy drinks may contain more than 200 milligrams per ounce.

» RELATED: World’s strongest coffee finally available in U.S., but beware of health risks 

Just as alarming as the high concentration of caffeine is energy drinks' high sugar content. The average 16.9 ounce energy drinks contains about 54 grams of sugar, significantly more than the recommended limit of 36 grams per day for men and 25 grams for women.

As the American Heart Association points out, "added sugars contribute zero nutrients but many added calories that can lead to extra pounds or even obesity, thereby reducing heart health."

» RELATED: Common painkillers increase risk of heart attack by one-third, new study finds 

In addition to weight gain, excessive sugar intake can lead to range of conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure. Over time, consistent high blood pressure may damage blood vessels and nerves, which can lead to heart disease and kidney problems. 

On top of energy drinks' own negative effect, they are often combined with alcohol, compounding the health risks. The article pointed out that this trend also appears to lead to higher levels of alcohol consumption, especially among young people.

» RELATED: Half of US adults now have high blood pressure, based on new guidelines

"Researchers attribute this to the fact that consumption of ED masks the signs of alcohol inebriation, enabling an individual to believe they can still safely consume more alcohol, leading to 'awake drunkenness,'" researchers wrote. "As a result of this increased alcohol consumption, those who drink alcohol-mixed ED are more likely to experience severe dehydration and alcohol poisoning."

Despite the numerous health risks, aggressive marketing has led to rapid growth and popularity of energy drinks throughout the world. Sales have increased in the U.S. by more than 240 percent since 2004, and the industry is expected to reach $21 billion in the country by this year. As a result, the article's authors argued that more regulation and oversight is necessary to address energy drinks as a public health challenge.

» RELATED: Here’s how much caffeine it takes to kill you

"Public health and policy action must be taken to mitigate the negative health effects and public health challenges associated with ED," researches noted, outlining specific steps the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) should take to properly label energy drinks. The authors also suggested that marketing should be regulated, specifically as it targets minors.

Pointing to the growing evidence reviewed in the article, the authors argued that energy drinks "should be considered a significant public health problem that warrants attention." 

Read the full study at frontiersin.org.

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