How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

Heroin is a highly addictive substance derived from the opium poppy. Historically heroin was used for pain relief; however, it is now classed as a Schedule I substance with no legal medical use for the drug and a high potential for abuse. Heroin is bought illicitly and is relatively low-cost, making it popular with those struggling with addiction who are also struggling with poverty or homelessness.

Different processes of making the drug can result in heroin of different forms or colors. Most commonly, the substance is a white or brown powder, but a sticky, black form called ‘black tar heroin’ can also be found.

Short-Term Effects of Heroin Use

The short-term effects of heroin are intense, giving the user a momentary rush of ‘euphoria’ that lasts only a few minutes. Due to the intensity of the feeling and the short duration of the effects, users can soon find themselves in the process of binging on the drug to chase the euphoric sensation they first experienced. Many say that they can never recreate the same effect of the first rush.

Other short term effects of heroin include:

  • dry mouth
  • rush of warmth to the skin
  • heavy limbs
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • severe itching
  • drowsiness
  • slowed breathing and heart rate
  • a drop in body temperature

People who abuse heroin for many years can also develop long-term physical and psychological side effects. The ways heroin affects the body can be incredibly uncomfortable, further driving chronic users to take larger doses to numb the pain and discomfort caused by heroin dependence.

Long Term Physical Effects of Heroin

  • Collapsed veins
  • Increased tolerance and dependence
  • Viral infections like HIV or hepatitis from sharing needles
  • Blood clots due to injection site problems
  • Lung infections like pneumonia or tuberculosis
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Brain damage

How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

Heroin affects most major organs but especially the brain. Using heroin affects the brain in a number of ways – the brain stem, the brain’s reward system, and opioid receptors are all affected. When heroin enters the body it is metabolized into morphine and 6-acetyl morphine and quickly binds to opioid receptors. This causes an intense ‘rush’ as dopamine is produced, which gives the drug user euphoric initial effects that are both intoxicating and addictive. The intensity of the rush depends on how much heroin is taken and how rapidly the drug enters the brain and binds to the opioid receptors in the brain’s cortex, limbic system and stem, which all work together to form the reward system.

Opioid Receptors

The brain contains opioid receptors and naturally produces opioid chemicals in response to pain. This is a temporary effect, and rarely strong enough to relieve chronic or serious pain. This is the reason that many prescription painkillers contain synthetic opioids.

Although heroin has not been prescribed as pain medication for many years, it binds to the same receptors that cause a release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. This gives the feeling of relaxation, calmness, and painlessness, very similar to that of many prescription opioids that bind to opioid receptors in the brain stem which is connected to the spinal cord. A significant difference, however, is the dose taken and the strict cap on the duration of time a person can take certain doses of opioid-containing medications.

When the human brain is exposed to these synthetic opioids regularly through taking heroin or other opioids it is less likely to produce its own natural opioid chemicals. The more a person takes heroin, the less natural opioid the brain will produce because opioid receptors absorb a large amount of opioids from the heroin. If a person’s brain produces less endogenous (natural opioids), there are fewer natural opioids to help ward off pain, leading many people to rely – or become dependent – on the pain relief that heroin provides. As a person continues using heroin, their brain becomes physically dependent on the drug, often coinciding with addiction. When the brain becomes chemically dependent as a result of regular heroin use, an individual will experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop using the drug.

Moreover, the opioid receptors in the brain are related to pain relief and breathing, which is why heroin use slows a person’s breathing rate. This can cause less oxygen to reach organs including the brain, which in serious cases can lead to permanent damage to the brain and organs – even causing death.

Risk and Reward System

The National Institute on Drug Abuse website explains that heroin also affects brain chemistry by ‘hijacking’ the brain’s risk and reward system. The brain also decreases how much dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters it produces because these are released artificially due to heroin use.

Disrupting the brain’s delicate balance of neurotransmitters by flooding the brain with dopamine can cause anxiety, mania, stress, aggression, and poor impulse control. Altering the vascular structure, or blood vessels, of the brain, can cause strokes, aneurysms, and other cerebrovascular changes that damage

Heroin Abuse Withdrawal

For heavy heroin users, withdrawal symptoms can begin just a few hours after the last dose was consumed. Using heroin can very quickly lead to heroin dependence which makes detoxing from the drug very difficult.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on the length of time a person has been abusing the drug. Heroin causes a combination of both physical symptoms and psychological withdrawal symptoms. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) sites list common side effects of heroin withdrawal as:

Mild Symptoms:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweats
  • Tremors
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches and spasms
  • Diarrhea
  • Restlessness

Severe Withdrawal Symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia/trouble sleeping
  • Depression
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Drug cravings

Heroin drug craving during the detoxification process can be strong, and many find it difficult to detox alone. There is a significant danger of heroin overdose during withdrawal as a person’s tolerance to the drug decreases. Many who relapse don’t take this into consideration and take the same dose that they would have before they began to detox. This is often too much for the body to handle and a heroin overdose can occur, causing dangerously slowed breathing and heart rate resulting in a coma or even death.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

Someone who abuses heroin may experience a certain ‘numbness’ when they don’t consume the drug. Heroin, and other drugs that affect the brain chemistry, upset the production of naturally occurring opiates and other chemicals that bring joy, pleasure, or relaxation.

Despite this, there is always hope of recovery. Heroin addiction is a chronic disease that requires many years of treatment and work, but it is treatable. Many people who struggle with drug abuse as young adults go on to lead long and healthy lives. Substance abuse can take over your social life, affect mental health, and even affect the way you think and process information. Effective treatments make use of a range of treatment modalities including therapy and support groups to help those struggling with addiction break free from substance abuse and rebuild their lives.

Contact Us

At Alina Lodge, we understand how difficult detox can be. We offer medical detox programs to help you through the distressing process safely. This greatly decreases the risk of relapse, with a medical professional monitoring your health and progress.

Once detox is complete, you will begin the healing journey to recovery by addressing mental health conditions that you may have in addition to heroin addiction. There are a number of therapies that can support recovery from the effects of heroin abuse or mental illness that may have contributed to drug use initially. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and mindfulness treatment therapy are evidence-based treatments to help you overcome addiction and live a healthy life beyond addiction.

Contact us today to learn more about our heroin addiction treatment programs and how the drug affects the brain.

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