How Opiates Affect the Brain – Gaining A Better Understanding
We all think we know how opiates affect the brain for the short term, but it turns out that it can also affect the brain chemistry for the long-term. This new knowledge can have an impact on how we treat opioid and opiate dependence, and start helping people live clean and sober more successfully.
Before we take a look at the way that opioid painkillers affect the brain, we have to understand what opioid do to cause so many people to want to abuse them. For those who don’t abuse these medications, it can be a genuine mystery as to why anyone would even want to take these medications for anything other than treating pain. To many, the idea of using heroin is just crazy.
Understanding the Effect of Opiates on the Brain While Actively Using
When you’re in need of opioid painkillers, you know it. You experience pain relief, and you begin to feel better. You take your medication as directed, and you heal so you can stop taking it. No problem, right? Think about this, though. When you were taking your opioid pain medications, did you notice a feeling of sleepiness, or maybe like you didn’t really worry about anything? This is the second thing that these drugs do. They create a feeling of peace and euphoria.
Now, you took them as prescribed, but imagine if you took more than your doctor told you to. Would the tingling, easy feeling be enough to make you want to use it again? If you had a bunch of problems in your life, you might.
Opioids bind to the opioid receptors in the brain. It helps to block the pain that we might be feeling, but it also floods your body with feel-good hormones. So, not only do you wind up not feeling intense pain, but you’re also feeling pretty solid emotionally.
This is how opiates affect the brain when you’re actively using. It gives an emotional high and feeling of euphoria. People say it feels like many different things to be high from opioids of any kind, but the bottom line is that it just makes things seem to be all better.
Why it becomes so addictive
So, we know that when a person is actively abusing opiates, there is going to be some kind of effect on the brain. It makes sense. It’s what causes us to keep wanting to get high in the first place, but how does this happen? Does everyone who uses heroin get hooked?
As it turns out, most people who abuse heroin or opioids get hooked. Now, here’s the difference – those who don’t abuse opioids are simply not likely to develop a tolerance and physical dependence to these medications. It is also nearly impossible that these people will begin using heroin for any reason at all. They are simply taking opioids as a way to fight post-surgery or traumatic injury pain.
So, this is part of the reason why becoming addicted is looked at as a choice. The thinking is that if people didn’t abuse these substances in the first place, they wouldn’t get hooked. Sadly, this is true. However, some people wind up becoming addicted to their opioid pain medications in other ways, not because of intentional abuse.
For these folks, breakthrough pain occurs. It happens when people wait too long to take their prescription pain medications and they begin experiencing pain. When the opioid painkillers finally start working, it can offer such sweet relief that an emotional bond begins to form. In an effort to keep pain from returning, people often increase their dosage or take it when they don’t need to, and this causes a physical dependence to develop.
It’s important to understand that abuse is overuse or use in a non-prescribed way. Heroin is always abused, as it serves no purpose in the medical community. Not everyone who abuses opioids is doing it intentionally, often, they simply need to fight intense pain and want to do it quickly. In many cases, desperation is the cause of the abuse.
For others, opioid abuse occurs without being prescribed opioids or even experiencing pain. The cause, in this case, is simply to get high. In these situations, the medications make the user feel good, and it’s why they continue to take them. Addictions develop much more easily in these cases than for those who are inadvertently taking too much of the opioid pain medications to ease pain.
But What About Brain Chemicals?
When you start understanding how an addiction to opioids can develop, you start asking the very simple question of why people love to abuse them. Then we get to the question of how opiates even hit the brain anyway. After all, being high all starts in the brain, right? So what is it that causes this?
In all of our bodies, we have what is called opiate receptors. Think of them as tiny little nerve endings in the brain and the gut. They’re there for good reason; not just because our bodies began to develop them in response to opiates that we consume. See, the brain naturally creates opioids. They are like endorphins and are boosted when we do something that makes us feel good.
Sex, skydiving, accomplishments, and even exercise can stimulate the brain to make more of these naturally occurring hormones that make us feel good, happy and secure in our lives. They usually are boosted when a person experiences pain or stress. For most of us, or someone who has never been exposed to external opioids, what the brain puts out is enough to keep us going. It’s part of the reason why people become adventure junkies. Because they simply love the way they feel when their “feel good hormones,” are kicked up a few notches.
In fact, endorphins help to reduce some of the pain that we experience in stressful situations like labor. So, they are essential in our everyday lives. Most of the time, they are enough for us, and if we want to start feeling better about things, we simply get some exercise, get more sleep and start doing different things that make us feel positive, maybe a little scared, and a lot excited.
Morphine and all its opioid relatives contain a chemical that closely mimics the chemical structure of endorphins. The only thing is that it makes us experience a feeling of euphoria that is way more intense than we can ever create on our own. It gives humans the ability to control the feeling, and that in itself can be very powerful.
So, in a small way, this is how opiates affect the brain. It’s all for the short-term, and shouldn’t be a problem, but with time, a problem can develop. This is part of the way that an emotional attachment to opioids develops, and you can’t have an addiction without being emotionally attached to something.
What About the Long-Term Effects on the Brain?
We often think that when we stop using opiates, that we’ll get through withdrawals and just figure out how to go back to normal. The thing is, that opioid abuse affects the brain for the long-term in many different ways. Going “back to normal,” might not be as easy as many people anticipate, and this is where it becomes difficult to kick an addiction to these substances.
When opioids are stopped for any reason, endorphin levels plummet. This includes serotonin, which gives us the desire to get up and go and feel decent about life. It’s also what helps us to fight depression. So, not only is the body physically dependent on opioids, the brain, the essential hormones that balance us are also dependent on them. Most of the time, our brains stop making feel good hormones naturally when we are delivering them through artificial means. It can take a while to encourage the brain to begin making its own endorphins again, and the time between can cause really significant withdrawal symptoms, especially on the emotional level.
However, this is often what’s happening to the lucky people. It turns out that surviving an overdose can have very serious consequences on the brain. When the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen, which occurs during an overdose, the brain cells can begin to die. Too many die, and you may be stuck in a vegetative state. But even if that doesn’t happen, many discover that the things that make them who they are, like the way they talk, the way they hear and understand things, and the way that they feel things are changed forever.
Even though brain cells can’t be regenerated, a new life can be learned when a person is determined to stop living the cycle and start living a clean and sober life. However, for those who find that they are the unlucky one left with problems after a survived overdose, recovery seems like a long, painful road.
Now that you know how opiates affect the brain, why not stop the cycle yourself and start looking into the treatment that will work for your needs? Life is too short and too wonderful to live it buried in a fuzzy blanket. Eventually, that blanket will become smothering, and you’ll want to get out of it. Maybe now is the time to stop depending on something else to make you feel good, and start letting your brain do the work it was meant to do. Maybe now is the perfect time to start getting clean and living a healthy, happy, addiction-free life.