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Opiates’ Effects on the Brain and Body

4 minute read

Opiates are among the most abused drugs in the United States. Opiates are naturally occurring opioids and include substances like heroin, codeine, and morphine. Derived from chemicals found in the sap of opium poppy, some opiates are used medically to manage pain or suppress coughing. Repeated use of these drugs can lead to opiate addiction. Opioid tolerance, dependence, and addiction are all indicators that your brain chemistry has changed due to chronic opiate use.

Opiate and opioid addiction can develop in a couple of ways:

  • You unwittingly become addicted to prescription opioids that were given to you for a medical condition. Long-term opiate use, co-occurring mental health disorders, or a predisposition to addiction can increase the chances that you’ll develop a substance use disorder.
  • You intentionally use opiate drugs for the high they can provide. Opiates’ effects on the brain are strong, depleting certain chemicals with continued abuse. The brain becomes dependent on opioids to function normally. You start needing more opioids just to ward off withdrawal and feel “normal.”

Here are some short- and long-term effects of opiate use:

Short-Term Effects of Opiates:

  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Pain relief
  • Drowsiness
  • Sedation

Opiates are known to cause profound sleepiness. Frequently, opiate abusers will experience sporadic periods of “nodding off” as they slip in and out of consciousness.

Long- Term Effects of Opiates:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal distention and bloating
  • Constipation
  • Liver damage
  • Brain damage due to hypoxia
  • Addiction

How Opiates Affect the Brain

There are opioid receptors in the brain, but they don’t produce enough natural opioids to stop severe or chronic pain. One of the ways an opioid pill or injection relieves pain is by flooding your brain’s reward system with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates:

  • Movement
  • Emotion
  • Cognition
  • Motivation
  • Feelings of pleasure

Dopamine is often called the brain’s feel-good chemical. It rewards natural behaviors like eating, exercising, and sex. In large amounts, opioids produce euphoric effects. Repeated misuse of opiates and opioids changes your brain and sends strong messages to repeat the behavior. In most cases, the result is opioid dependence and addiction.

Dependence is the need to keep taking drugs to avoid opioid withdrawal symptoms. Typically, physical dependence is resolved after drug detox, within days or weeks after quitting opioids. However, drug addiction is more complex and long-lasting. Addiction is the intense drug craving and compulsion to use. Addiction can produce cravings that lead to relapse months or years after you’re no longer opioid dependent.

While much of the research into opiates’ effects on the brain explores mid- to long-term use, some research shows opioids can alter your brain in just a few weeks. A recent study found that after just a month of morphine use, people had measurable changes in their brains. MRIs showed reductions in their gray matter volume, which affects the part of the brain that’s responsible for:

  • Regulating cravings
  • Relieving pain
  • Learning

How Opiates Affect the Body

Beyond opiates’ effects on the brain, other parts of the body suffer as well. Here’s how opioid addiction impacts some of the body systems:

Respiratory System

Opiates’ effects on the brain extend to the central nervous system (CNS), which controls respiration. In particular, opioids slow down the CNS, depressing breathing patterns significantly. In some cases, breathing can stop altogether. Therefore, opioid abuse puts you at a high risk for overdose. Opiate and opioids can also suppress or block air from reaching the lungs.

Circulatory System Opiates’ impact on the circulatory system may include:

  • Increased risk of Afib, which can cause blood to gather in the heart, putting you at risk for clots and strokes.
  • Clogged blood vessels and bacterial infections and scars in heart valves and veins.
  • Less oxygen in the blood, which means that the brain may not be getting enough of it.
  • Increased risk of HIV and hepatitis due to needle sharing, which are conditions that are linked to heart disease and stroke.

Endocrine System

The endocrine system is also impacted by opiate abuse. Some of the issues long-term opiate use can cause include:

  • Testosterone deficiency
  • Less production of sex hormones in women and men
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle mass loss
  • Decreased libido
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Irregular or loss of menstrual period
  • Osteoporosis
  • Infertility
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Digestive System

Opiates and opioids have several adverse effects on the gut. Some of these include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Delayed digestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Bloating
  • Stomach pain
  • Acid reflux

Immune System

Opioids are known to suppress the immune system making you more susceptible to illness. These types of drugs impact the cellular immune system, changing your body’s ability to fight bacterial infections. Opiate abuse can indirectly impact the immune system by lack of self-care. If you struggle with substance abuse, you’re focused on using drugs or alcohol. Things that support a healthy immune system like proper nutrition, getting enough sleep, and exercise typically fall by the wayside.

Get Help. Prevent Further Damage.

Opiates’ effects on the brain and body can cause irreversible damage. Drug abuse also impacts your behavioral health. Opioid addiction is difficult to recover from, but not

impossible. We’ve seen countless clients take back their lives and build better ones in recovery. Footprints to Recovery offers evidence-based addiction treatment that addresses the underlying reasons behind drug and alcohol abuse. Opioid treatment at our drug and alcohol rehabs include:

  • Drug detox and alcohol detox
  • Dual diagnosis treatment
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
  • Individual, group, and family therapy
  • Traditional and alternative approaches
  • Trauma therapies

We offer residential and outpatient programs. Reach out today. We can help.


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