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How Does Heroin Affect the Brain and Body?

Heroin is a highly addictive opioid that can temporarily or permanently affect the brain and body. To know how heroin affects the brain, we need to understand the drug’s mechanism and the journey it makes through the user’s body. When a molecule in the brain attaches to a receptor in the brain, cells signal to one another in the brain to produce specific chemicals or to take action and make the individual act or feel a certain way. The body craves what feels good. When these molecules enter the body and bind to receptors in the brain, signals make the body feel good and encourage the person to continue taking the substances. This increases the possibility of addiction.

How Does Heroin Affect the Brain

What happens when heroin enters the brain and attaches to its receptors? Certain drugs attach to certain receptors. Since heroin is an opioid drug, it attaches to molecules on cells known as opioid receptors. When a molecule attaches to the opioid receptors, it signals the brain in certain areas responsible for particular things, “especially areas involved in the perception of pain and pleasure, as well as a part of the brain that regulates breathing.” Opioid receptors are found throughout the body and are dense in the brain. When drugs activate opioid receptors, the typical outcome is pleasurable thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Specifically, the “short-term effects of heroin include a rush of good feelings and clouded thinking. These effects can last for a few hours, and during this time people feel drowsy, and their heart rate slows down.” This response may not appear to be all that dangerous, but “when the drug wears off, people experience a depressed mood and often crave the drug to regain the good feelings.”

While this describes short-term heroin use, using the drug consistently alters brain function and can permanently change how your body functions and your personality. Tolerance, dependence, and addiction are common symptoms of long-term heroin use.

  • When a heroin user depends on the drug to feel the same pleasure and experience the same “high” that they did when they first used the drug, it’s known as tolerance.
  • Dependence occurs when a person uses heroin to alleviate unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
  • Addiction is a brain disease that can develop as a result of opioid drug use, such as heroin, and causes the user to continue using the drug despite negative consequences.

The user feels physiologically and psychologically drawn to the drug and craves the feeling the drug gave them on their first high. Chasing the high consumes the user’s life, and it becomes difficult to maintain a job or relationship. A major defining trait of addiction is that it is a disease and that the user’s brain function changes because of the drug and its mechanisms. Sadly, addicted people use drugs to feel a baseline of normality, and completely lose touch with the person they once were.

Short Term Effects of Heroin

To comprehend the effect that heroin has on the body, it’s critical to understand how a healthy brain functions. Usually, the brain and body act in sync with the body’s natural reward system, and it gets disrupted by heroin use.

Opioid receptors are located throughout the body and heavily centered in the brain, brain stem, down the spinal cord, and in the lungs and intestines. Since opioid receptors are located throughout the body, “using heroin can result in a wide variety of physical problems related to breathing and other basic life functions, some of which may be very serious.” When using heroin, the body may experience any of the following symptoms caused by the drug attaching to opioid receptors throughout the body:

  • Dry mouth
  • Flushed skin
  • Feeling weighed down
  • Stiff arms and legs
  • Upset stomach
  • Throwing up
  • Intense itching
  • Clouded thinking
  • A sudden spurt of deep depression
  • Going “on the nod” (switching back and forth between being conscious and semi-conscious)
  • Increased risk of HIV and hepatitis (due to shared needles and lack of judgment while high)
  • Risky behaviors due to lack of judgment

The short-term effects of heroin use can vary depending on whether or not the heroin is mixed with other drugs. If heroin is mixed with alcohol, the short-term symptoms may include a coma or severely slowed or stopped breathing, which can lead to an overdose death.

Long Term Effects of Heroin

Continued heroin use can cause permanent damage to your brain and body. Long-term effects can include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Tissue damage inside the nose for users who sniff or snort the drug
  • Pain in an area of tissue filled with pus; an abscess
  • A heart infection
  • Constipation
  • Stomach cramps
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Lung problems
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sexual dysfunction for men
  • Disrupted menstrual cycles for women

There is also a risk of severe organ damage if the heroin is laced with another drug. For instance, “heroin bought on the street often contains a mix of substances, including the dangerous opioid called fentanyl.” Fentanyl may be combined with heroin to cut costs and increase the drug dealer’s profits. This practice is extremely dangerous as “some of these substances can be toxic and clog the blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidney, or brain” leaving a serious risk of permanent organ damage.

At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we believe that understanding how drugs affect our brain and body is an important step in the recovery process. Knowing what the brain and body went through during active addiction motivates those in recovery to avoid using drugs and to take care of their overall health.

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