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When pharmaceuticals don’t work, researchers are turning to nature for the discovery of safe and effective medicines. Recently, a few natural alternatives are proving to be possible replacements to prescription opioid painkillers. Research is only in preliminary phases, yet preclinical and historical evidence suggests that new modern medicines may come from the earth. Most recently, research from the University of Utah suggests that a sea snail may hold the next alternative to prescription opioids.

Is sea snail venom the next opioid alternative?

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A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that a compound found in the venom of a specific kind of sea snail that may have particularly potent pain-blocking abilities.

While opioid pain medications were originally derived from the opium poppy, innovations in pharmaceutical medicines have created opioid painkillers 50 times stronger than heroin.

Now, scientists are looking for safe and effective alternatives for these dangerous medications. The authors explained that their study,

[…] addresses the need to phase out opioids as the major analgesic drugs for moderate to severe chronic pain.

The compound in the venom is known as RglA4, and it has previously been successful in rodent trials. Now, for the first time, scientists think they understand how it might work.

The venom comes from the Conus regius, more commonly known as the crown cone snail.

The crown cone snail is native to the Carribean region, and it uses its venom to paralyze its prey before feasting. While one particular compound in the venom has potent pain-fighting properties, the venom itself can be harmful to humans. In a case report, a sting from a crown cone snail caused temporary paralysis in a human arm.

Interestingly, when researchers began investigating this venom, they found that RglA4 is can suppress nerve pain, which could be beneficial for those with diabetes and cancer. It apparently does this by tripping pain receptors that are not affected by opioids, potentially blocking pain for up to 72 hours.

Plants for pain

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This finding is just one of a couple promising new findings on opioid alternatives. Cannabis, of course, is frequently used by pain patients hoping to find effective relief while avoiding the negative side effects of pharmaceutical medications.

Though no studies have pitted cannabis against opioids in pain trials, research has shown that medical cannabis laws are associated with reduced overdose rates.

Another opioid alternative that has made headlines recently is kratom, which is a leaf native to Southeast Asia that is related to coffee. Back in September, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) tried to ban kratom as a schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

Banning kratom would have criminalized it in a manner similar to cannabis. However, the tree leaf has been used as a stimulant and pain medication for decades and is even has been used to help patients with opioid addiction wean off of the drug.

Fortunately, after many phone calls from scientists and kratom advocates, the DEA decided against criminalizing kratom. Though, the plant may be scheduled properly at some point, after more research on the plant determines whether or not the leaf is safe for common consumption.

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Delilah Butterfield

Delilah Butterfield is a Pacific Northwest native with a passion for cannabis and natural health. Contact her on Twitter @delilahbfield.
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