What is about opiates that make them such a powerful, addictive type of drug? Why is it that opiate abuse has taken hold of and destroyed the lives of people of all ages, from all socio-economic backgrounds and from all areas across the country?

A big part of understanding why opiates are so powerful is understanding what chemicals opiates release, and how they affect the brain. By having an understanding of opiate effects, people can start to look for ways to get help for themselves, their friends or family members. Understanding what chemical opiates release is also a big part of the research being done to counter the opioid epidemic happening in the United States.

Opioids, which include illegal drugs like heroin as well as prescription painkillers like hydrocodone, interact with the brain and the central nervous system in ways that allow them to completely derail a person’s life.

What Are Opiates?

Part of understanding the chemicals opiates release is based on having a general concept of what opiates are. The terms opiates and opioids are often used interchangeably. In technical terms, opiates originate from natural poppies. Opioids can refer to synthetic drugs that replicate what comes from poppies, but more often it’s used to refer to any of the drugs that fall into the opiate classification.

What Happens When You First Take Opiates

Significant to understanding what chemicals opiates release is seeing how they affect the brain and the central nervous system.

When a person takes opioids, it binds to opioid receptors which are found in nerve tissues. Your body produces natural opioids, but at a minimal level compared to what happens when you take opioid-based drugs.

Once you take an opiate, whether it’s a prescription painkiller or heroin, it starts to take effect relatively quickly, and the chemical that is released is a neurotransmitter, from neurons in nerve tissues, called dopamine. Dopamine is something that when it’s released at such high levels as it is with the introduction of opiates, can create a feeling of extreme pleasure and euphoria.

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and natural chemical that plays a significant role in how your brain deals with reward and pleasure. Dopamine is also responsible for acting as a messenger across your body. The dopamine that plays a role in opioid use is released in the ventral tegmental part of the brain.

When this chemical is released, the brain feels that whatever it just received is something that it should try to get more of. For example, let’s say you were to have a piece of pizza and it’s something your brain found rewarding. You would start to think about getting pizza again in the future, and if you were around it, you would want it.

While that’s fine, to an extent, with something like pizza, the chemical dopamine does something similar when opioids are introduced to your brain, though to an artificially greater effect.

The dopamine chemical is also associated with how our brain processes the concept of reinforcement. When you do something pleasurable, your brain motivates you to do it again and again, which is what happens with addiction.

Additionally, dopamine plays a role in attention and focus. When your brain sees something as rewarding and worthwhile, it becomes trained to focus attention on that.

These are all the reasons why the chemicals released by opioids are likely to lead to opioid addiction. The high you feel when you first take opioids then drive your brain to think you need more and more of that substance, although it has negative consequences. The reward your brain associated with the dopamine released by opioids is what leads to drug abuse.

Opiates are unique in how they release chemicals and impact the brain because they can pass the blood-brain barrier relatively quickly and in some cases almost instantly.

This fast-working quality means that if you were to take an opiate, such as heroin, you would go from feeling normal to as if your life were somehow changed profoundly — all within a few minutes. Many people describe that high as nothing short of bliss, and this is all because of the release of the chemical dopamine and the role opiates play in the area of the brain that issues that reward feeling.

Understanding the chemicals opiates release is an important part of helping people avoid opioids, or if they’re already abusing them, it can help them take control of their life. Opiates have one of the most powerful effects of any class of drugs on the brain, and it’s the chemicals released by the use of these drugs that leads them to have such a high potential for abuse and ultimately addiction.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.