Opiates are substances that are naturally derived from the poppy plant and bind to opioid receptors. The opiate class of drugs includes illicit substances like heroin, as well as legally attainable prescription painkillers. Prescription painkillers classified as opiates include codeine and morphine.

Prescription opiates are given to treat moderate to severe pain. They’re often given to people following surgery or injury. They may also be prescribed in instances of chronic pain or illness, such as cancer.

While there are therapeutic benefits that can come from the use of prescription painkillers, all opiates are highly addictive and can lead to physical dependence. Even when you take opiates as prescribed by a physician you can become dependent on them, which means if you were to stop taking them you would experience symptoms of withdrawal.

Deaths related to heroin overdose have risen significantly since 2007, and the same can be said for prescription opiates.

So why do opiates make you happy? What is it about opiates that people find so pleasurable they eventually become addicted and dependent on them?

The reasons why opiates make you happy has everything to do with how they affect the brain.

The Brain and Why Opiates Make You Happy

When people take opiates, they often describe the feeling, especially if it’s the first time they’ve taken the drug, as more pleasurable than any other feeling. That’s because opiates impact the brain’s reward centers. Opiates attach to receptors in the brain that create something called the opioid effect. They block pain, and calm and depress the central nervous system, as well as creating a sense of calm, and of course, happiness or what can even be described as bliss.

It should also be noted that the effects of opiates are apparent very quickly. When someone first takes opiates, they pass to the brain almost instantly. In a matter of a few minutes, a person can feel the effects of the drug. Usually, the more fast-acting a drug’s effects, the more likely it is for people to abuse that drug.

The chemical makeup of opiates replicates a natural neurotransmitter, which allows these drugs to activate certain nerve cells.

When you take opiates, they impact your brain’s reward system by pouring excess amounts of dopamine into it. Dopamine is what regulates feelings of pleasure, as well as motivation. When this system is overstimulated, as which occurs with the use of opiates, it creates a sense of euphoria.

The feeling you get when taking opiates is similar to what happens when you do something your brain naturally finds pleasurable but much more amplified.

The human brain is designed in a way that encourages the repeating of activities associated with reward or pleasure. As you take opiates, your brain’s reward circuit becomes rewired and you feel as if you need to continue taking opiates to recreate the feelings they gave you.

To give you an idea of how powerful opiates are, it’s estimated that they release up to 10 times more dopamine than what occurs with your natural reward system.

How Opiates Affect Your Brain with Continued Use

As you continue to use opiates, however, even after just two weeks, your brain will start to lose its natural ability to create feel-good neurotransmitters. The longer you use opiates, the more your brain’s ability to produce these neurotransmitters declines.

As your brain continues to lose its natural abilities to produce chemicals like dopamine, you feel as if you need to take more and more opiates to recreate the initial feelings of euphoria the drugs gave you.

Over time people, who use opiates chronically may not feel anything when they take them and instead may just feel their new sense of normal. This is what leads to taking more opiates and ultimately overdosing or moving to different drugs in the hopes of achieving that same initial high. One example of this is people who start taking prescription opiates and then move to heroin because it’s more potent and less expensive.

If you try to stop using opiates, particularly very suddenly, your natural chemical system has difficulty rebalancing. It’s been damaged by the presence of opiates, and as with anything in your body that’s damaged, it takes time for it to be able to recover and go back to a balanced state.

It’s so important for people to understand why opiates make you happy. The more you can learn about opiates and why they make you happy, the more likely you will be to avoid ever taking them. If you’ve already found yourself using opiates, there are ways you can stop with professional help, including treatment at The Recovery Village.

Megan Hull
Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
Wendy Weber
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Wendy Weber, PharmD, MBA
Wendy J. Weber is a pharmacist with almost 20 years of experience in acute care clinical practice, hospital pharmacy leadership, medication safety, and clinical research. 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.