The ever-growing research of the science behind addiction and highly addictive drugs like opioids has helped us understand much more about the way the human brain works. Current addiction studies have determined that it is a chronic and progressive brain disease that is caused by the alteration of brain function, causing people to seek out destructive substances or behaviors compulsively. When speaking in terms of substance misuse, opiate addiction is one of the hardest to overcome due to the way the chemicals in the brain are affected. With the opioid crisis in America still affecting communities at record levels, it’s time we take a look at the long-term effects of opioid use and consider how best to handle addiction with each individual impacted.
What Are Opiates and How Do They Work?
Opiate drugs are very similar to the structure of morphine on a molecular level. These substances are derived from the opium poppy plant and are produced in many forms from pills to patches and injectable fluids. Opiates are prescribed and administered to treat pain, as their chemicals mimic those that are already naturally occurring in the brain.. These painkillers contain chemicals that bond with opiate receptors in the brain, causing pain-relieving effects by working its way through the nervous system. However, when opiates are taken in higher doses than prescribed for pain-relieving effects, a different kind of feeling is achieved, one that is euphoric. The brain is flooded with neuro-chemicals like dopamine and serotonin which trigger a response from the pleasure and reward pathway of the brain. These sensations are much higher than natural feelings of pleasure. Think of the difference between the two as listening to the radio at a normal level in the car versus hearing that same song live in concert standing next to a speaker. These feelings are so intense that they begin to train the brain they are superior to those that are naturally occurring, reinforcing to the brain that it should continue to seek this drug more and more. Slowly, the brain begins to prefer these effects to anything else, causing the cycle of addiction to spin out of control.
After the brain has signaled that it needs more of these chemical opioid receptors to feel good. The person who is misusing medications or opiates in the form of illicit drugs like heroin will start to seek more and more over time. These higher doses are needed to feel the euphoric rush from the first couple of times the effect was experienced. With drugs like opiates, larger doses are needed over time due to the buildup of tolerance levels. Because a person has a certain level of the drug present in their system, they will need more of it to feel the effects. When more of the drug is taken, they will have more of the drug in their system than there are opiate. With prolonged use, the brain will begin to develop more of these opioid receptors which will demand more of the drug to bind with to feel “content.” This can result in a person continually needing to increase their dosage to feel anything at all, often resulting in people taking in nearly lethal amounts of drugs that can lead to an overdose.
Withdrawal from opiates coincides with a user’s growing tolerance. The more they use the drug, the more the body builds a need for higher doses to feel any effect. Most times, people who use opiates hit a level where they no longer feel pleasurable effects but continue to use because of the very painful withdrawal that is experienced when they stop. The brain naturally tapers production of neurochemicals and hormones during drug use because it starts to rely on the chemicals that are provided by opiates. This is what causes the highly uncomfortable effects of withdrawal that can drain the body, leaving it very low and the opiate receptors vacant. For this reason, withdrawal is not just physically painful, it’s mentally painful as well. It can make “quitting” very difficult and seemingly impossible for some.
Seeing the implications of opiates on the brain and body indicates that use of these drugs fundamentally changes the way a person can cope and deal with stress and pain. Opiates can cause the body to lose its natural ability to tolerate almost any discomfort or pain. Some studies have even shown that prolonged opiate use can reduce the body’s natural pain fighting ability, causing someone who uses these drugs therapeutically to need them even more. This can cause an adverse effect when someone suddenly loses access to opiates, causing them to sometimes feel pain more intensely. When someone who is already chemically dependent on opioids is given a “normal” dose of opiates to settle pain, it will make the drug feel ineffective to them because it is not providing enough chemicals to occupy all of the brain’s receptors. These neurochemicals are also part of mood and emotional function, often being negatively impacted by the prolonged use of these drugs. This makes opioid addiction that much more powerful in many people, leaving them to feel powerless and oppressed by their own body functions.
There are long-lasting effects of opiate addiction that can linger well into recovery. Once someone has attended treatment, the psychological effects can last for many years. This is why medically assisted treatment along with a whole-patient approach to recovery that involves counseling and group therapy is the most effective method of overcoming opiate addiction. This is a disease that needs to be treated as such. People who are dealing with addiction should not be seen differently from others with chronic illnesses, and treatment should be encouraged and supported. With the proper methods, breaking the cycle of opiate addiction can be achievable, and the goal of long-lasting recovery attainable.