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

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.

Addiction help

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More CPDD Addiction research: Addiction, exercise, recovery!

Okay, this is probably the last addiction research update I will give focusing on the Reno conference. The rest of the stuff I learned will be incorporated into future posts.

I’ve written before about the relationship between exercise and recovery (see here) and I will surely write more since for me, it was a big part of the equation.

two separate studies at CPDD reaffirmed my belief that exercise can be a very useful tool in addiction recovery.

The first study, conducted in humans, examined the effect of incorporating an extensive exercise routine into a residential, as well as intensive outpatient, addiction treatment program. Their findings showed improved outcomes for participants in the short, as well as long run. These included length of sobriety, subjective assessment of well being, and more. In talking to the researcher, she seemed to believe that at least part of the effect was due to the relief of cravings achieved by allowing patients to focus on something that took effort, rather than simply sitting around.

The second, and to my mind even more interesting, study examined the effect of exercise on cocaine self-administration in rats. Researchers assigned half of their rats to a cage that had a running wheel while the others were assigned to a regular cage. the rats with the running wheel used the device to run an average of 12 kilometers a day! After a week of simply resting in their cages, when transferred to another cage for 2 hours a day, the rats who had the wheel in their cage took less than half as much cocaine as the rats who didn’t have a wheel. the “wheel-rats” were also found to run less after they began the cocaine portion of the experiment, but their cocaine-taking never got near that of the non-exercising rats. It seems that having the exercise did something to reduce the reinforcing power of cocaine.

I have a feeling that future research will show that these finding hold true for other drugs (like crystal meth, heroin, marijuana, cigarettes, and alcohol) and possibly even for behavioral addictions like food addiction, gambling, and sex addiction.

All in all, research seems to be supporting the notion that exercise can play a significant role in recovery from addiction. Whether it be for boredom relief or an actual internal change in the motivating power of drugs, it looks to me as if Addiction + Exercise = Recovery !

Links of the week

Guess what? It’s that time again. Here are some posts by other writers that offer good help for addicts. I know I’ve been slacking on these, but I’ve simply had too many of my own cents to add. It happens often.

Trudging the gentle path: Being an atheist in recovery

Spiritual River: A new recovery eBook

Stop eating disorders: How to stop a binge

About.com: Signs of a relpase (I don’t necessarily agree with all of these, but it’s a good article)

Addiction Recovery Basics: Sign of addiction

That’s it for now, enjoy!

And don’t forget to click the title of the post for related articles on allaboutaddiction.com that offer addiction help!