How Opiates Affect the Nervous System

As America suffers from the weight of a staggering drug problem, there’s been increasing attention given to the opioid epidemic, and what is about these drugs that have led to them taking such a powerful grip over Americans from all backgrounds and in all locations. Opioids are a class of medicines that include prescription painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin, and the term is also used for heroin as well.

While the use of prescription painkillers, in particular, is on the rise in a massive way, there’s still a lot of misunderstandings people have about these drugs. A big part of helping to address the issue can come down to exploring how opiates affect the nervous system and the rest of the body. There’s a dangerous misconception that because a doctor prescribes most opioids, they are somehow safe, and that’s completely untrue. Dispelling that myth is a key component of addressing the opioid crisis happening right now.

Opioids get their name from the opium poppy plants, but many of today’s prescription painkillers are actually synthetic or semi-synthetic. Our body creates its own molecule-like substances that impact how the brain and nervous system work. When your body creates opioid-like molecules, they bind to certain receptors, sending messages that can help block pain, calm the body during stress, and shape how a person experiences reward and pleasure.

how opiates affect the nervous system
The central nervous system refers to a person’s brain and spinal cord. The CNS is responsible for most functions of the body including communication across all systems. The central nervous system dictates almost everything that we think, how we move and all of our emotions. While the nervous system is a general term, for the purposes of discussing opiates and their effect on it, we’re referring to the central nervous system.

There’s also a peripheral nervous system, but it’s closely related to the CNS, and it refers to any aspect of the nervous system that’s not within the brain and spinal cord.

When you take opiates, the nervous system is quickly affected. The first time, or maybe even the first few times you use opioids you often experience a tremendous euphoric rush, particularly with an opiate like heroin. Many people describe it like nothing they’d ever experienced before. This is all because of how opiates affect the nervous system.

Synthetic opiates attach to opioid receptors throughout the brain and spinal cord when they’re taken in, and they manage pain, but they also are like a hack for stimulating the CNS natural reward system. The reward system is then flooded with a naturally occurring chemical called dopamine, and this is around 1000  more powerful than the release of dopamine that occurs naturally.

Dopamine passes signals from neuron to neuron in the central nervous system, and when the reward circuit of the brain is overwhelmed as it is with opioids, there is intense contentment and excitement.

Despite the desirable effects of these drugs, there are other less desirable side effects that indicate how opiates affect the nervous system. For example, the activation of some of the same pathways can lead to feelings of nausea and confusion as well as sedation.

It’s also important to note that opiates are central nervous system depressants. They impact the areas of the CNS that control necessary and vital functions including breathing. When someone takes opiates it slows their respiration rate, and if someone takes too much or combines opiates with something like alcohol, their respiration can slow so much they go into a coma, or they stop breathing altogether. This is how opiates affect the nervous system in a way that also creates a high risk of overdose.

Also pertinent to how opiates affect the nervous system is the concept of addiction and dependence. Not all people who use opioids will become addicted, but the more someone uses them, the more their brain becomes wired to want to continue repeating that action.

When younger people begin experimenting with opiates, they’re at a greater risk of becoming addicted. This is because the reward pathways in their brain are still developing. When their brain is in these key stages of development if they alter it by introducing opiates, their brain can become focused primarily on how to find more drugs, and that’s the key way their brain looks for pleasure.

To sum up how opiates affect the nervous system, it can be defined as three groups of effects. The first refers to lower levels of consciousness, and these effects can include drowsiness and sedation. The second group refers to thought processes and cognition. Finally, the third group refers to the influence of opiates on the activity of neurons, and also the building of tolerance to the drugs. Essentially opiates influence nearly every aspect of the nervous system, and that’s important for people to understand as they consider the potential detrimental effects these drugs can have on their brains, their bodies and their lives.

How Opiates Affect the Nervous System
3.7 (73.33%) 3 votes