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.

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The Importance of Medically Supervised Addiction Treatment for Young Adults

The teenage years are really tough enough as it is with raging hormones, so when you add in a substance abuse problem it can become a complicated problem.

Many teens experiment with drugs or alcohol with little or no consequences at all, however there are a lot of teenagers that very quickly get stuck in the cycle of addiction. If you find out your teenager has been using drugs or alcohol you must take steps to find out the depth of the problem.

Because teenagers are not yet fully developed their views can be very limited. Very often teenagers simply cannot fully comprehend the severity of the consequences of their using and of their own behavior due to using.




For this reason if your teenager has a substance abuse problem it really is best to ensure you find an addiction treatment center that offers specialized addiction treatment for young adults.

When choosing a rehab for your teenager it is also important to choose a medically supervised addiction treatment program that will help to ensure the best possible outcome for your child.

Medically Supervised Addiction Treatment for Young Adults

Here are the reasons why a medically supervised addiction treatment program is so important for young adults:

A Medically Supervised Detox

Just to put it simply, withdrawal from certain drugs can be dangerous, even deadly which means a medical detox can mean the difference between life and death for your teenager.

There are many drugs that require detoxification, including alcohol, heroin and opiate related drugs, and certain prescription drugs such as Xanas, Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Hydrocodone. Withdrawal symptoms can have severe side effects which can be fatal if not properly treated.

Detoxing from these drugs may cause vomiting, trembling, nausea, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, seizures, and comas.




Trained medical professionals can help to manage these life threatening symptoms by administering medication to wean the addict off of the drug, decrease physical withdrawal symptoms and prevent seizures.

Medical staff are on hand to check vital signs, evaluate mental and physical progress and provide support to the patient throughout the withdrawal process.

There are also other drugs that do not usually require a medical detox, these include marijuana, cocaine, and crystal methamphetamine. Withdrawal symptoms are not so severe ranging from a feeling of tiredness to extreme irritability and agitation.

Very often medical detox is given for these drugs for other reasons such as the patient feels they cannot stop without medical intervention, they have become psychotic from drug use and need a medical intervention, they feel they are a danger to themselves (suicidal) or perhaps they just don’t have anywhere else to go.

It is much safer for an addict to go through a medical detox than to try and attempt it from home, not just from the viewpoint of the physical and mental dangers associated with detox, but also because relapse is a lot more likely when attempting to detox without medical help.

When a drug addict goes back to using drugs during or just after withdrawal their tolerance is usually much lower making an overdose more likely.

Addiction and Dual Diagnosis

When a patient is diagnosed with a substance abuse problem and a mental health issue it is referred to as a dual diagnosis.

Common mental health disorders that occur in conjunction with addiction and substance abuse problems are:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Personality Disorders
  • Mood Disorders (such as Bipolar Disorder)

It may be that a drug addict starts to develop mental health issues when, after chronic drug use, the brain function alters.

Alternatively someone with mental health issues may attempt to treat the symptoms of their mental disorder by taking drugs. For example someone suffering from anxiety may smoke marijuana in an attempt to calm themselves and through prolonged use becomes addicted.




Regardless of which disorder occurs first it is essential that the addiction and the mental health disorder be treated at the same time. The symptoms and effects of the mental disorder can trigger and drive the addiction and vice versa.

At least 30% of people that are suffering with a substance abuse problem have mental health issues.

For these reasons it really is important for teenagers (and any other addict) to be treated at a medically supervised, dual diagnosis addiction center.

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