Cirque Lodge > Blog > Addiction > How Does Heroin Affect the Brain and Body?

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug derived from morphine, one of many naturally occurring opiates. Morphine is a substance found in the poppy plant. The opium poppy grows in parts of Asia and South America, which supply most of the world's heroin. Heroin can be manufactured either as a white or brown powder or a black, sticky substance known as black tar heroin.

Heroin is a schedule I drug, meaning it currently has no recognized medical use and has a high potential for abuse, making it highly addictive. Commonly, users inject heroin with a needle, but it can also be smoked or snorted. Some people take it at the same time as alcohol or combine it with other drugs. The latter is a hazardous practice, particularly if the other drugs are synthetic opioids, which is referred to as "speedballing."

What Does Heroin Do To The Brain?

The drug rapidly enters the brain and of pleasure - such as the limbic system - or binds to opioid receptors in various areas, particularly those related to feelings of pain. The normal function of the affected brain parts is to regulate behavior around everyday pleasurable activities such as eating and sex. Heroin also affects the brain stem, and this interferes with the control of automatic functions such as breathing, heart rate, and sleep, and is of course very dangerous. One of the main ways heroin affects the user is by producing a "rush," an intense surge of pleasure or euphoria.

Effects Of Short-Term Heroin Use On The Brain and Body

The immediate feelings of pleasure are often accompanied by a kind of brain fog, and the user loses clarity of thought. These effects generally wear off after a few hours, but since the heroine is highly addictive, the user can rapidly crave more. The effects of heroin use vary depending on the individual, but heroin generally provokes symptoms such as:

  • dry mouth
  • severe itching
  • a heavy feeling in the limbs
  • nausea and vomiting
  • warm flushing of the skin
  • slipping in and out of consciousness

Long-Term Effects Of Heroin Use On The Brain and Body

In the longer term, taking heroin regularly may lead a person to develop a heroin use disorder. Heroin consumers are at risk of several conditions which other opioids also cause, such as:

  • Tolerance: tolerance occurs when a person's body is so used to the drug that larger and larger doses are needed to induce the desired state.
  • Physical dependence: this term refers to a biological need for continued heroin use, without which the person will experience withdrawal symptoms.
  • Addiction: a person's drug use becomes compulsive, continued, and beyond their control. Their substance abuse starts to affect all areas of their life, including their mental health.

Alongside these, long term heroin use will give rise to various health problems, including, but not limited to:

  • collapsed veins in people who inject the drug
  • infections of the valves and lining of the heart
  • stomach cramps and constipation
  • disease of the liver and kidneys
  • weakened lungs, and risk of pneumonia
  • insomnia, depression, and mental health concerns
  • long term imbalances, particularly hormonal, for example, irregular menstruation in women

There are also other associated long-term effects of regular heroin use, such as contracting diseases like hepatitis or HIV from sharing needles. Impurities (even non-toxic ones such as powdered milk or sugar) can obstruct blood vessels, causing permanent damage to the brain, lungs, liver, or kidneys.

In short, heroin use affects the brain, nervous system, internal organs, and hormonal systems. It also puts the user at serious risk of a heroin overdose. Furthermore, research has revealed a loss of white matter in the brain connected to heroin. This brain damage may affect decision-making and how a person behaves or responds to stressful situations.

Withdrawal From Heroin Use

Because heroin addiction causes such physical solid dependence, if a person is deprived of the drug for a while or attempts to stop with the support of substance abuse treatment professionals, they will inevitably experience withdrawal symptoms. These can begin not long after the last dose is taken and are initially mostly physical, starting with severe heroin cravings, but also:

  • loose bowels and vomiting
  • severe pain in muscles and bones
  • cold flashes accompanied by goosebumps
  • uncontrollable thrashing of the legs
  • rapid pulse, anxiety
  • restlessness and sleep problems

Unlike heroin overdose, which can easily be fatal, withdrawal from heroin alone is not generally considered life-threatening. The above symptoms are a sign the body is detoxing from substance abuse. Sadly, even if a person manages to weather the storm of heroin withdrawal, they will often return to their previous using habits.

There are few medications explicitly used to treat heroin withdrawal symptoms. Generally, hydration, rest, and vitamin B and C supplements are the basic steps suggested to help a person recover. However, medication such as Clonidine - most often used to treat high blood pressure - is known to reduce symptoms of heroin withdrawal. FDA-approved Iofexidine is a non-opioid medicine specifically prescribed to help with opioid detoxification.


Can Brain Damage from Heroin Abuse Be Reversed?

It is a fact that regular use of heroin can cause brain damage. But much of the neurological damage caused by substance abuse problems can be relatively easily reversed over time and with complete abstinence. Even mild brain atrophy (when the brain shrinks) or the white tissue damage mentioned above are potentially reversible. That's the good news. However, conditions such as overdose-induced brain hypoxia (when the brain is starved of oxygen) can lead to irreversible brain damage, particularly if the person becomes comatose or experiences temporary respiratory failure. Since heroin can cause the actual death of brain cells, in severe cases, prolonged and heavy use of the drug may lead to deterioration of vision, hearing, or even control of movement.

Obviously, for the brain (and the body in general) to heal, a person must avoid further drug abuse, so seeking addiction treatment of some kind is advisable.

Role of Prescription Painkillers in Heroin Addiction

According to a 2019 opioid and heroin report, 9.7 million Americans misused prescription painkillers during that same year.

While they are prescribed for pain relief, prescription opioid medicines such as OxyContin and Vicodin have almost the same effect as heroin - research indicates that a small percentage of heroin users first misused prescription opioids before taking the drug. Interestingly, a larger percentage of heroin users turn to misuse prescription medication in an attempt to give up or reduce their heroin use.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

The two main approaches to the treatment of heroin use disorder are pharmacological and behavioral. Medications help restore a degree of normalcy to brain function, while therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or various forms of counseling help a person create new thinking and behavior patterns. Research has shown that combining these two approaches (which do not exclude other modalities) gives the best results.

The most common medications used in heroin addiction treatment are Methadone and Buprenorphine, both categorized as agonists, which activate opioid receptors. Both have the same effects, inducing mild feelings of euphoria while counteracting withdrawal discomfort, the aim being to wean a person slowly off the highs they get from heroin.

With behavioral therapies, if a person is highly motivated and has the support of family members, they may choose to undergo therapy as an outpatient. Others may find the decision to enter treatment provides the most supportive environment to work positively on themselves.

Aside from CBT, which focuses on critical, practical aspects of everyday life, such as how a person responds to challenges or stressful situations (among other things), contingency management has also proven to be a helpful approach. It utilizes a system based on "vouchers," which participants can earn on the strength of negative drug tests. They can then exchange these for items that support healthy living.

Heroin addiction is one of the most challenging drug use disorders to overcome, and accomplishing this alone is a bit like trying to climb Mount Everest without oxygen. Here at Cirque Lodge, our holistic approach and team of compassionate and experienced professionals mean we are ideally placed to identify the treatment process best suited to the needs of an individual. If you, a loved one, friend, or acquaintance are struggling, we are here to help you back to wellness and freedom.

Read more: How long does cocaine stay in your urine

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