Opiates on Your Body and Brain

opiates-effect-on-brainOpiates are among the most abused drugs in the United States. Opiates are easy to attain, readily prescribed and very addictive. Opiates include many substances such as heroin, morphine, and oxycodone. Opiates are derived from chemicals found in the sap of opium poppy. Opiates are useful for managing pain and for a cough suppressant but because of their addictive nature are one of the most abused drugs.

Many might not know but, naturally, we have opioids receptors in our brains. However, our bodies are unable to produce enough natural opioids to stop severe or chronic pain nor can we produce enough to cause an overdose. When someone takes an opioid, it floods the brains reward system with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in areas of the brain that regulate 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. In most cases, the result is opioid dependence and addiction. Dependence is the need to keep taking opioids to avoid withdrawal syndrome. Dependence can be resolved after detoxification, within days or weeks after opioid use stops. However, addiction is more complex and long-lasting. Addiction refers to the intense drug craving and compulsion to use. Addiction can produce cravings that lead to relapse months or years after the individual is no longer opioid dependent.

While much of the research into how opioids affect the brain look at what happens in the mid to long term research, there’s been indicators that opioids can alter your brain even with just a few weeks of use. Studies have found that even after a month of morphine use, individuals had measurable changes in their brains. MRI’s showed that individuals had reductions in their gray matter volume which affects the part of the brain that’s responsible for regulating cravings, pain, learning and emotions.

In addition to affecting the brain’s pleasure and reward system, opiates have been shown to affect the central nervous system. In particular, opioids slow down the central nervous system, leading to depressed respiration. When this occurs individuals breathing patterns slow down significantly and in some cases stop breathing altogether.  It is this alone that puts individuals using opiates at a high risk for overdose.

Below you’ll find other short and long term effects of opioid use:

Short-Term Effects of Opiates:

  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Pain relief
  • Drowsiness
  • Sedation

Opiates are known to cause profound drowsiness and 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 (slows down the digestive system)
  • Liver Damage
  • Brain damage due to hypoxia
  • Addiction

Opiates are a natural substance to the human body because our brain cells have opiates receptors. This is how we achieve successful pain relief when using opiates for pain relief. However, opioid tolerance, dependence, and addiction are all indicators of brain changes resulting from chronic opiate use. Daily, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opiates. The misuse of an addiction to opiates continues to be a national crisis.

Author Nicole Horta, LSW, LCADC – Footprints to Recovery – Clinical Therapist

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