Substance use disorders, specifically the resulting chemical dependence and addiction, are a mystery to most of us. We might wonder why someone would become dependent on a substance in the first place, or why the person can’t just stop using it. In fact, in the past, addiction was thought to be caused by a moral deficiency or lack of character. Over the decades, an evolving body of scientific research has shined the light on how drugs affect the brain.
While all psychoactive substances can lead to addiction, heroin has always been the substance considered most addictive. When discussing the effects of heroin on the brain, it is important to keep in mind that this information also relates to other opiates, like prescription pain medications. All opiates affect brain chemistry and functioning similarly, ultimately hijacking the brain’s reward system.
What is Heroin?
Heroin is from the opiate family of drugs. It is derived from morphine, a natural byproduct of certain poppy plants indigenous to Southeast Asia. Heroin is a highly addictive substance that causes a powerful reaction in the brain’s chemistry. This leads to the “rush” that is felt upon injecting, smoking, or inhaling the substance. A rapid increase in tolerance leads to more frequent usage, in a never-ending quest to relive the initial euphoric high.
This powerful drug makes lasting changes in the brain, eventually causing the heroin to take the place of naturally occurring dopamine. In time, without heroin, the user is unable to experience pleasure. This causes the person to continually increase the dosing in a vicious cycle that increases the risk of overdose.
When chemical dependence results, any attempt to stop taking heroin results in highly unpleasant flu-like withdrawal symptoms. At this point, the individual primarily uses the drug to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
How Does Heroin Impact the Brain?
Substances cause a three-pronged response in the brain, each of which helps to cement its continued use. These three aspects of the addiction process include 1) the effects of the substance on the brain (intoxication), 2) the anticipation of and preoccupation with re-experiencing these effects due to the takeover of the brain’s reward system, and 3) the withdrawal phase where negative conditioning takes place. In that final phase, seeking relief of the withdrawal symptoms is the chief motivator.
Heroin affects the brain by attaching to its opioid receptors. This causes a release of dopamine that the person experiences as a euphoric high, drowsiness, and relaxation due to a slowed respiratory rate. The brain registers the pleasant effects as something positive. A pattern commences, starting with intense intoxication, increased tolerance, escalation in heroin use, and withdrawal symptoms that trigger a repeat of the pattern. This culminates in dependency and/or addiction.
What Are the Dangers of Active Substance Use?
Heroin dependence causes devastation in all areas of a person’s life. Heroin dependency can develop in a very short period of time. Dependence results in physical discomfort and illness when the heroin wears off.
The swath of negative consequences caused by heroin is wide. It can impact career, personal finances, relationships, physical health, and mental health. Some of the consequences of heroin use include:
- Sexual dysfunction
- Loss of employment
- Legal issues
- Financial devastation
- Loss of ambition, malaise
- Weakened immune system
- Cognitive impairment
- Memory problems
- Brain damage
- Kidney damage
- Liver damage
- Heart damage
- Mental illness
- Divorce, loss of custody
- Risk of overdose
To overcome heroin dependence it is necessary to access professional treatment. The treatment program will be multifaceted, including:
- Withdrawal management
- Evidence-based psychotherapy
- Group therapy
- Medication supported recovery (MSR™)
- Substance education and relapse prevention coaching
- Nutritional counseling
- Twelve-Step program
- Holistic therapies
Successful recovery from heroin dependence or addiction depends on a commitment that reaches beyond the treatment program itself. Continuing care will help reinforce recovery through such actions as MSR compliance, continued psychotherapy, participation in a Twelve Step or similar recovery community, and adherence to the relapse prevention strategy. With a commitment to recovery, it is possible to overcome heroin use and regain a full and purposeful life.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs, holistic addiction treatment, drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to heal each individual with respect and dignity, and reflects on our ongoing commitment to meet new challenges. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.