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Addiction brain effects : Opiate addiction – Heroin, oxycontin and more

July 3rd, 2009

Okay, we’ve talked about crystal meth and cocaine and how they affect the brain during drug use. As I mentioned, both cocaine and meth interfere with the way the brain stores and cleans up important neurotransmitters, including, most importantly, Dopamine and Norepinephrine.

opiates-morphine & heroinThe class of drugs known as opiates, which includes morphine, heroin, codeine, and all their derivatives (including oxycontin), acts on the brain in a completely different manner. Since our goal at All About Addiction is to explain drug use and abuse as comprehensively as possible, let’s turn our attention to this opiate addiction next.

Heroin, morphine, oxycontin, vicodin and other opiates

While cocaine and crystal meth work by disrupting the normal functioning of molecules responsible for cleaning up released neurotransmitters, opiates work by activating actual receptors that naturally occuring neurotransmitters activate. Substance like this are known as agonists; they perform the same action (identically as, to a lesser, or greater extent) as a substance the body already manufactures.

In the case of morphine, heroin, and most other opiates, the most important receptors activated are knownOpiate Receptors as µ-opioid receptors. Activation of the µ-opioid receptors is associated with analgesia (suppression of pain), sedation, and euphoria, which makes sense given the relaxing, pleasure inducing effects of opiates.

Natural opioids (also called endogenous opioids), which include endorphins, are used by the body to relieve pain and increase relaxation, especially during periods of extreme stress. These are the chemicals that make sure we can function during accidents, like after breaking our leg…

Opioids and dopamine

Opioids also increase the amount of dopamine in the brain indirectly. As I mentioned in the earlier posts, dopamine is thought to be the reward indicator in the brain. Unlike crystal meth and cocaine, heroin and its relatives increase the activity of dopamine neurons by releasing the hold that other neurons (that use GABA) have on them. Think of this as the release of pressure on a hose spraying water on a lawn. When the pipe is pinched, only so much water can get through, but once the clasp is released, water can flow in greater quantity; this is essentially what opiates do.

Heroin addiction and long term opiate use

Like I said before, this doesn’t sound so bad, does it? All we’re talking about here is the increasing of the functioning of system that already exists in the brain. The problem isn’t so much in the process, the problem starts when this system gets activated for long periods of time.

HeroinHeroin addicts, and other frequent users of opiates complain about the extreme discomfort they feel when they stop using the drugs. This discomfort has been described as the worse case of the flu you could imagine. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? In fact, withdrawal symptoms associated with stopping opiate use are at least one of the main reasons many users return to the drug after trying to clean up. This in addition to all the other effects of the drug on the brain to make wanting to stop so much harder.

The reason for the pains and aches? Given the overactivation of its pain suppression system, the body not only reduces its own supply of opioids, but it also turns up the sensitivity on its pain receptors. Heroin users notice this as an increase in tolerance, but they compensate for it by simply using more. However, when they stop, they’re left with a body unable to suppress its own, hyper sensitive pain system. The results are more than uncomfortable, they’re simply excruciating…

Another common complaint of addicts is diarrhea. This, again, is simply the reversal of the constipation caused earlier by heroin’s actions on opioid receptors that are present in the peripheral system (outside the central nervous system).

I’ve heard addicts speak online about the slow recovery from opiate addiction and I want to dispell a myth here:

Opiates DO NOT stay in your system for weeks or months – The drug itself is gone from the body within days. The reason for the continued suffering is the slow adjustment of your brain and body back to the way things were before the drugs. Think of how long the tolerance took to develop… Now play the tape back in reverse. That’s what happening to you. You can help relieve the pain, but know that if you use anything in the opiate family, you’re making the process last much longer…

So, in summary: As usual, the actions of opiates on the body and brain are not all the severe, extreme, or inappropriate. Opiates are still used in medicine for pain suppression, not only because they work, but because the potential for abuse when used in this way are minimal to non-existent. However, as with all drugs, continued, chronic, abusive use of opiates will change the way your body functions in ways that will produce the exact opposite effects of those users like so much. This leaves people not only with possible addiction problems, but also with a terrifyingly uncomfortable return back to normal functioning.

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Posted in:  Drugs, Education, Opiates, Prescription
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78 Responses to “Addiction brain effects : Opiate addiction – Heroin, oxycontin and more”

  1. Erin says:

    Naltrexone can be used for opiate addiction, it’s a daily pill & inexpensive($10). In shot form it is Vivitrol, which is administered monthly(>$1,100) by doctor who must be registered(very difficult process & time consuming, as in months). An annual implant is also available.

  2. JayD says:

    Naltrexone implant – i went and had the implant a few years ago and i used right up until it was put in, it cost AU $3000 and it was the most horriic experiance i have encountered in my life. Naltrexone dispells all opiates from your system, so my $500 dollar a day habbit came screaming out of my body within 30 minutes, they had not checked with me my last use of herion. Over the next 48 hours i urinated and deficated myself, didn’t know who or where i was, being completely disorientated i kept walking into walls falling off ledges, spoke jibberish and vomited every 15 minutes, i basically thought i was going to die. After a few weeks of having the implant i actually did feel good, got my strength back and started eating well. I did try herion again but it had no effect on me while having the implant but the implant only lasted 11 months. When it ran out i felt strange pshycolgically, got the shakes and lost my appetite feeling as though something was happening to my nervous system. For anyone out there considering having the implant make sure you get clean first, take your naltrexone tables everyday for the first two weeks to make sure your body can handle the implant and make sure your Squeeky Clean and if i was to have the implant again i wouldn’t have anything, not even codeine in my system, no opiates at all before having this done.. As i said this was a feeling so close to death and have known of people who have ended up in intensive care from having this done.

  3. Trent says:

    I have been tied up in heroin addiction for the past 7 years. Have been clean and relapsed several times, including a 19 month stay at a rehab followed by relapse.

    I am now getting off of suboxone(buprenorphine) and haven’t touched heroin since the first week of Jan 2012. I managed to get my doses down to 1mg/day and even 0.5mg/day during the last three days. No suboxone since 2/10 and it is now 3/19 (37 days).

    I am going through post-acute withdrawal symptoms still and the last time I cold-turkeyed off of 0.4-0.5 grams of tar heroin per day, I felt fine by this point. The suboxone withdrawal was somewhat less intense, but it is lasting quite a bit longer.

    I’ve been the most happy with two therapies that I’ve leaned heavy on this time getting clean:

    The temporary one that helped when I was too sick to be active was heavy use of cannabis. Now, I was aware that I needed to be careful not to switch addictions to another chemical. So while I was on suboxone, and after I got through the acute withdrawal, I employed this second (more permanent) therapy which is hopefully going to be a lifelong thing.

    Exercise. (Yoga in particular)

    I’m actually using most of the exercise videos in the P90X exercise program. I was doing a minimum of 90 minutes of yoga a week (along with strength training and running/jogging). I now am attempting doing that 90 minute yoga session 3-4 times a week as I am finding that the discomfort of the residual withdrawal is COMPLETELY gone for a few hours after a session.

    I had found somewhere on the internet that there is evidence that regular yoga practice elevates GABA levels in the nervous system. From what I understand this could be a way to greatly accelerate the healing of the brain and nerves from the damage of opiate abuse. Not to mention all the other benefits from yoga…

  4. Melissa says:

    I had a pretty bad opiate addiction that started with percs and nucyntas and ended with black tar heroin. It went on for two years or so and I came off cold turkey… That lasted for 3 weeks and I just couldn’t take the acute withdrawal symptoms…. Dreams, loss of appetite, not being able to think about anything else. So I went to a sub doctor and got put on suboxone. It was the first time in years that I felt like myself again. I work out at least 5 times a week, love to run… I’m very active but without the suboxone, I get lathargic, depressed, and it brings back really bad memories of not having something. I want off the subs. I’m on 4 milligrams a day… Sometimes I only take 2 milligrams a day… But I’m scared to come off…. I never want to go back to that cycle I was in. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for this post.

  5. Conretta says:

    I have been taking opiates for chronic pain for over a decade with the dosage increasing to where I now take 80 mg. oxycontin (time release)three times a day as break through medication with the 60-90 mg. doses of onycodone (immediate release)I take every 4-6 hours. I am never pain free but the meds enable me to get out of bed each day. I constantly worry about the long term affects the meds have on my body. I never get a buzz although I remember when I started taking tylenol three for pain 20 some years ago that I did get high. My pain doctor tells me I don’t feel the meds because they go directly to my pain. I feel more pain from the small minded pharmacists, friends, and relatives that have judged me for being on the narcotics in the first place. and from the people that steal meds from me. My body is so screwed up from being a little gal carrying a big mail bag and walking miles a day as a mail carrier, but initially from wearing out my shoulder casing mail and I was diagnosed with “over use syndrome”. I had a neck fusion in 1999 but the C5, 6 and 7 discs in my neck were powder like and there was nothing to fuse, so i have a chunk of steal in my neck but a failed fusion. I used to run out of meds all the time and it turned out that my high school aged son and his friends were getting very high from stealing my meds and my son developed a serious opiate addiction along with a serious drinking problem that he struggled with for almost a decade. After a failed suicide attempt, he stopped drinking for three years but continued to battle his opiate addiction. He took suboxin for several years and told me it was to keep him from drinking. He finally got his life together only to be killed in a car accident 20 months ago at 27 and there were no drugs or alcohol in his system. The guilt I feel from his experiences and the depression I caused him will never leave. I used to drink heavily myself but for some reason lost the desire along the way. I am always exhausted and have an abnormal life. I rarely leave my house and went from being a social,happy, gregarious manic type individual to a depressed, ashamed woman. I lost two jobs BEFORE I got on the opiates; I could not function anymore due to pain and was told over and over by doctors that i needed to learn to live with the pain. SO THE QUESTIONS ARE, is 240 mg. of ocycontin (t.r.)along with 200-300 mg. oxycodone (i.r.)dangerous quantities of opiates daily and what is it doing to my body long term? I do not feel the meds NO MATTER HOW MANY I TAKE. I have tried to get the buzz to understand the drugs appeal, but to no avail. I want to quit cuz I hate the stigma but I don’t know if I can go back to living with the pain. Massage, acupuncture, yoga and other forms of alternative medicine help, but the insurance companies would rather pay exorbitant prices for drugs than alternative holistic methods of treatment that I cannot afford. Please advise.

  6. Ben Coors says:

    I have been addicted to heroin, oxycontin, vicodin and other opiate analgesics. While I always felt great while under the influence of these drugs, it is a horror going through withdrawal. Also buying these drugs can become very expensive. Be smart, don’t do drugs!

  7. cliff says:

    morphine is an endogenous alkaloid, produced from the same amino acid that is used to biosynth dopamine, l-tyrosine.

    this is a pretty damn important finding for the rehab/medical community to learn.

    is it a consideration amongst people thinking about drug vaccine treatment? I dont know, but I certainly hope the pharmaceutical industry did their research.

    ends up there are morphine precursors in some USDA approved foods, some FDA approved dietary supplements,
    and as well, LDOPA is metabolized into morphine if its taken as a supplement.

    its amazing to me, that all those years of addiction and suffering could be attentuated possibly by store bought poppy seeds, various dietary supplements, and a few uncommon fruits, well, uncommon in the nothern states, but not some southern states.

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