The Science Behind How Opioids Affect the Human Brain

Did you know that in 2015 more than 52,000 Americans died of drug overdoses? Approximately 33,000 of these were from opioids, according to the CDC. This includes prescription painkillers and heroin.

But while almost everyone has heard about opioids, not many know how they affect the human brain.

And of this reason, we’re shedding some insight on how they affect the brain, and how their abuse became pandemic.

Read on!

how opioids affect the human brain

Some Basic Facts About Opioids

When you get a headache, you probably reach for an aspirin or ibuprofen. These belong to a class of drugs known as NSAIDs or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Opioids are also a class of medicines that relieve pain. Some examples include morphine and codeine. Heroin has no acceptable medical use in the United states and is roughly 2 to 3 times more potent than morphine.

Humans make natural opiate-like molecules, which attach to special receptors in the brain. These molecules send signals that block pain, slow breathing, and calm the body down, especially during times of stress.

But, in cases of extreme pain or severe depression, natural opioids aren’t as effective. This is why many turn to synthetic opioid drugs. Taking opioids reduces the perception of pain by overwhelming the brain’s reward system with dopamine.

The Science Behind Opioid Addiction

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in brain regions that regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and the feeling of pleasure.

Taking opioids increases the amount of dopamine in the brain’s limbic reward system. This dopamine overload produces euphoric effects. People who abuse drugs seek to recreate this rush again and again.

This is how our brain works. Life-sustaining activities become associated with pleasure or reward. Whenever you get a jolt of pleasure while eating or exercising, this is why.

Opioids activate the same reward circuit. A brain on opioids notes that this action is pleasurable and should, thus, be repeated.

Opioid Withdrawal

Withdrawal is one of the reasons why one can’t just go cold turkey on opioids. Repeated use and increasing dosages of opioids alter the brain so much. Without them, neurons will release excessive amounts of noradrenaline (NA).

NA is also a neurotransmitter produced in the brain and peripheral nervous system. Arousal and regulation of blood pressure, as well as sleep and mood, are due to NA.

Excess NA will trigger withdrawal symptoms including jitters, anxiety, muscle cramps, and diarrhea.

Helping Opioid Addicts

Naloxone is a popular treatment for overdose. It works by pushing opiates off brain receptors for 20 to 90 minutes. That is plenty of time for the victim to regain consciousness.

There are also drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine. These make it easier for addicts to avoid the physical symptoms of withdrawal.

Medical interventions are just one part of the solution. Prescott House Addiction Treatment Program, for example, follows the principle that recovery is a process involving the mind, body, and spirit.

Medications must be used together with appropriate psychosocial treatments to be effective. Not all addicts are the same. One’s treatment plan should be based on an individual’s unique situation.

When it comes to recovery, there is really no singular path that everyone must follow.


Why am I an Addict?

The question “Why am I an Addict?” is something I asked myself a lot in the early days of recovery.

Over time the answer has not miraculously been answered but that need to know has completely left me. I am not sure why it seemed so important at the time but for some reason I wanted an explanation.

Why am I an Addict?

What exactly causes addiction?

It could be that some people have a predisposition to addiction, maybe it runs in the family and it is hereditary. Some people believe we are weak-willed people that could have stopped but didn’t, that we crossed the “invisible line” and there is now no going back. Sometimes there is a traumatic event that sets off addiction but is that the cause of the addiction? Some people think it is due to lack of education or the bad environment you grow up in.

We have alcoholics and addicts in our family so perhaps there is something in the hereditary aspect.

Regarding the upbringing and lack of education well that certainly didn’t apply to me. My parents are amazing, they sent me to a good school and I had a wonderful and loving home life. So that wasn’t it.

I started drinking alcohol and smoking weed when I was 14. When I started drinking I found I could not stop, I drank to get drunk and I could not control myself. Yes it is true that I went through some very traumatic events at that age. It may have sparked my addiction off but I honestly don’t believe it was the cause of it.

I have memories of when I was about 5 years old. I would go to my mom and tell her I wasn’t well so she would give me Stopayne which has Codeine in it. I would also climb on top of the cupboard, open the “child-proof” medical box and drink it out the bottle. Something in me told me this was wrong which is why I did it in secret.

Stopayne has Codeine in it, the same narcotic component in Cocaine. In my twenties I tried Cocaine for the first time and in no time at all this became my drug of choice. You can read all about that in the ebook I wrote about my addiction.

These memories of my young days just prove to me that I have always been an addict. Maybe traumatic events moved it along a little faster but I do believe it was inevitable.

Do you ever ask yourself the question “Why am I an addict?”. Have you found any answers?