How Opiates Affect the Brain

The use of opiates and the abuse of these drugs is undoubtedly on the rise throughout most of the U.S. Despite how many people take opiates, there is still a lot of misinformation and a lack of knowledge surrounding these drugs and how they affect the brain.

First, opiates is also a term used interchangeably with opioids. These are a class of drugs that when prescribed are intended to treat serious pain. The opiate drug class also includes heroin, however, which is an illegal drug sold on the streets.

There are ways that opiates affect the brain in the long-term and also the short-term which are important to understand, particularly as prescriptions for opioid painkillers has risen 300 percent over a 10-year period. There are more than two million people believed to have substance use disorders related to opioid pain relievers just in the U.S.

How opiates affect the brain
The first part of understanding how opiates affect the brain involves looking at what happens immediately after someone takes them, particularly if it’s the first time. Because of how opiates affect the brain, when someone takes these drugs they attach to the body’s many opioid receptors. Typically the naturally occurring opioids in the body are meant to calm the body down, and they manage the reward and pleasure systems of the brain.

When you take synthetic opioids, your reward system feels an extreme rush of something called dopamine, which is an important neurotransmitter. Dopamine signals the neurons of your body in a way that creates a very high level of pleasure or excitement often referred to as a high.

So what about how opiates affect the brain regarding addiction?

The brain is naturally inclined to learn to want to repeat actions that stimulate the reward system or provoke feelings of pleasure. Of course without opiates, the actions your brain wants to repeat are things like sex or eating. Once you’ve taken opiates, your brain starts to want to repeat that activity, and that’s how addiction develops.

Over time the high diminishes significantly from taking opioids and may disappear altogether. Repeated use of opiates makes the receptors in the brain less sensitive to their presence. That means more is needed to achieve the desired effect, which is what physical dependence begins as.

To be specific, it’s the mesolimbic reward system that’s found in the brain and is responsible for dopamine and related feelings of pleasure. Since opiates directly reward this system, your brain learns to associate positive things with the use of drugs. Your brain basically trains itself to be addicted to drugs.

As well as repeated use, there are other ways how opiates affect the brain to the point of contributing to addiction.

There are individual factors that are relevant in how opiates affect the brain including brain chemistry and genetics. These are factors that can determine how fast it would take for an addiction to occur.

While much of the research that looks at how opiates affect the brain considers what can happen in the mid to long-term, there are risks that opiates can change your brain even in just a few weeks.

Research and studies have shown that even after just a month of using morphine people had changes in their brains. MRIs showed that patients who took morphine had a reduction in their gray matter volume throughout the study. These reductions were focused on the parts of the brain responsible for the regulation of cravings, pain, and emotions. Also, there were increases in gray matter related to learning and memory, which leads researchers to believe that this has something to do with how opiates affect learning long-term behavior patterns, even after the pleasurable effects of using opiates have subsided.

Other ways how opiates affect the brain aside from pleasure and reward systems include slowing the central nervous system which leads to depressed respiration. This is why people on opiates are at a high likelihood of an overdose. When this happens, their breathing slows down significantly, and in some cases, it may stop completely.

There are so many ways how opiates affect the brain, some of which can take months or even years to reverse. Opiates aren’t just about getting a quick high. They’re drugs that impact certain brain receptors in just the right way to make them highly addictive, while at the same time carrying dangerous side effects, making them incredibly dangerous on multiple levels.

As someone tries to stop using opiates, their brain continues to show the effects of the drugs. It takes a long time to recover with post-acute withdrawal symptoms including anxiety, mood swings, low energy and enthusiasm, problems with concentration, sleep issues, feeling tired, and irritability. Because of how opiates affect the brain people will general experience many challenges, and the recovery process can be a lengthy one as the brain attempts to restabilize itself.

How Opiates Affect Your Brain
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