What Opiates Do to Your Brain Chemistry

What Opiates Do to Your Brain Chemistry

Opiates are addictive because of how they affect brain chemistry

The CDC is urging doctors to avoid prescribing powerful opiate painkillers for chronic pain patients in a 2016 landmark guideline. The guideline addresses physicians nationwide. The nation’s top federal health agency clearly indicates the risks from morphine-like drugs far outweigh the benefits for most people. Vicodin and OxyContin are examples of painkillers made from morphine.

These drugs are too addictive, too easy to abused, and not conclusively effective in managing long-term pain. The CDC’s data shows that about 40 Americans are dying each day from prescription painkiller overdose. They are taking this unusual and bold action to combat the nation’s deadly prescription painkiller epidemic.1

Opiates Rewire Your Brain…and Take Control

Drugs are addictive because of how they affect users’ brain chemistry. Some prescription pain-relief drugs relieve pain by attaching to receptors in the brain. These receptors can cause pain relief, but a big enough dose causes a powerful high. The effect of this high lowers over time, but causes higher doses, dependence, and addiction. Many people, perhaps at first under a prescription for pain, are turning to drugs for the high they provide. As Addiction Science and Clinical Practice explains, “The linkage of these chemicals with the receptors triggers the same biochemical brain processes that reward people with feelings of pleasure when they engage in activities that promote basic life functions.” In other words, these drugs work because they reward people with the same feelings that eating, sex and sleeping produce.

The mesolimbic reward system, which is responsible for controlling the release of dopamine, is directly responsible for feelings of pleasure. Opiates directly affect this reward system, which means that people create positive associations with drug use. Because people have positive associations with drugs, it is very difficult to override the brain’s trained attraction to their use. We gravitate as much to pleasure as we do to pain reduction.2

Tolerance and dependence (needing the drug to function) form as use these drugs repeats and dosage increased. Receptors in the brain become less sensitive to the drugs. Over time more of them are needed in order to produce the desired effect. Addiction develops as it changes how the brain normally works.

More Than Just “Use” May Be Involved When the Brain Responds to Opiates

Repeated use isn’t the only factor involved in addiction. Genetics and brain chemistry determine if and how quickly addiction sets in. Psychiatric Genetics notes that “genetic factors, both those shared by addiction to several drugs of abuse and those specific for addiction to a given drug, contribute approximately 40-60% of the risk of developing opiate addiction…Genetic predisposition may explain why approximately one-third of those self-exposed to opiates become addicted.” Genetics play a factor in how brain and body chemistry change during opiate abuse. People should ask themselves if they want to continue using drugs and risk that a drug problem may result.3

Co-occurring mental disorders complicate matters relating to the brain under the influence of drugs. A dual-diagnosis is an effective treatment method for a drug addicted brain. Several factors cause both substance use disorders and other mental health conditions. Underlying brain deficits, genetic traits, and early exposure to stress or trauma can all be a factor.4

Many of the changes caused by addiction are reversible, and any user can return to a drug-free life. Getting started on the path to recovery is as simple as calling our 24/7 toll-free line. We will listen to what concerns you and offer you some options for help. We truly care, one person at a time.

1 “Doctors Told to Stop Prescribing Opiates for Chronic Pain”, USA Today, (March 16, 2016).

2 Kosten, Thomas R., M.D., et. al., “The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, (July 2002).

3 “Genome-wide association study identifies genes that may contribute to risk for developing heroin addiction”, National Center for Biotechnology Information, (November 18, 2013).

4“Comorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Illnesses”, National Institute on Drug Abuse, (September 2010).