Effects of Opiates on the Brain

Opiates are easily accessed in this country and unfortunately, it has become the norm to know someone with a prescription (or have one yourself). Opiates are prescribed everyday legally and illegally and sometimes just purchased on the streets. They are meant to help aid people to function without pain due to an injury or surgery or perhaps a chronic illness. However, they are often abused and with devastating results that lead to overdoses and deaths.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), Prescription opioid pain medicines such as OxyContin® and Vicodin® have effects similar to heroin. Research suggests that the misuse of these drugs may open the door to heroin use. Data from 2011 showed that an estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids switch to heroin and about 80 percent of people who used heroin first misused prescription opioids. More recent data suggest that heroin is frequently the first opioid people use. In a study of those entering treatment for opioid use disorder, approximately one-third reported heroin as the first opioid they used regularly to get high.

Effects of Opiates on the Brain

What is an Opiate Exactly?

The term “opiate” often gets labeled “opioid” and vice versa. Both have very similar definitions. When we first started to learn about this drug, we used the term “opiate” for any drug that comes from opium, which is a substance extracted from the poppy plant. As we gained more knowledge about, we started to use “opioid” to refer to synthetic drugs that imitate opiates. Now that we figured out what does what, we use “opioids” to refer to any drug that falls into these two categories. Many people use these terms interchangeably.

An opioid drug can fall into one of four classes:

  • Endogenous: Opioid compounds produced in the body, such as endorphins
  • Opium alkaloid: Drugs made with opium, including codeine and morphine
  • Semi-synthetic: Opioids synthesized from opium, such as heroin and oxycodone
  • Synthetic: Opiates created in a laboratory using chemical reactions, including fentanyl

There are different ways of taking these drugs depending on what kind it is. Prescription opioids have many varieties that differ by use, including pills, patches, lozenges, and injections. Illicit opioids include powders that the user inhales through the nose, injectable solutions, and pills. Some drugs, such as pain pills can be turned from pill form to a solution to inject by crushing them up and adding water. How you administer drugs affects the high’s length and how long the effects are.

The Impact of Opiates on Your Health

Abuse of opiates, whether prescription painkillers or heroin, can have a serious impact on your health. In addition to the hazards of overusing opioid painkillers, the sharing needles for the injection of heroin or injecting crushed pills poses its own dangers. These substances and practices in them can affect almost every part of your body, potentially leading to permanent damage to your health.

While there are many dangerous effects that opiates can have on your body such as collapsed veins, respiratory problems, hepatitis, and more there are also many complications in your brain that can occur that go unnoticed and can become permanent.

The dangerous outcomes to our body and brain do not happen the moment we first use the opiates. It takes repeated use over time. So what effects do opiates have on the brain?

From the first time you use opiates, they attach to receptors in the brain. When the opiates attach to our brain receptors, they send signals to the brain to the part which blocks pain, slows breathing, and has a general calming and anti-depressing effect. This is called the reward system and it produces dopamine to get that calming effect or euphoric high. Our brains produce dopamine naturally but when opiates are ingested into our bodies it stops producing because it thinks there is too much.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in parts of the brain that controls movement, emotion, cognition, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. The overstimulation of this system, which rewards our natural behaviors, produces the euphoric effects sought by people who misuse drugs and teaches them to repeat the behavior.

Treatment for Opioid Dependency

Our bodies will never produce enough natural opioids to stop severe or chronic pain or will it produce enough to cause an overdose, but taking more opiates than our bodies can handle will.

Our brains are wired to make sure we will repeat life-sustaining activities by associating those activities with pleasure or reward. Whenever this reward circuit is activated, the brain remembers that something important is happening that needs to be remembered and teaches us to do it again and again, without thinking about it. Because drugs of abuse stimulate the same circuit, we learn to abuse drugs in the same way. This is what leads to dependency and addiction.

If you or a loved one are struggling with opiate addiction, Allure Detox can help. We have wonderful news for anyone addicted to painkillers: opiate detox at Allure is a safe and comfortable process, one that will get you drug-free, sane, and healthy again.