What are Opioids?
Opioids are a powerful class of drug that includes the illicit drug heroin as well as the licit pain relievers, such as; oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and fentanyl.
Our brains have natural opioid receptor hardwired within it. Opioid receptors interact with nerve cells in the brain and nervous system, controlling pain and delivering pleasure. Everyone on the planet does this naturally through our endorphin system.
When we engage in pleasurable activities the brain releases these feel good chemicals (dopamine/serotonin) and we experience them as a reward. These chemicals are the drive behind every habit we have. We will almost always do what that which gives us the greatest pleasure or has the greatest potential for removing pain or discomfort. We are hedonic seeking creatures. It’s why we eat when we’re hungry, have sex when we’re horny, and take medicine when we’re sick.
Our natural endorphin system has three primary functions; stabilize mood, provide energy/motivation, and control pain. All necessary to live a functional, normal life. Opiate dependent individuals ALL report they stopped using heroin and pain pills to get high within months of starting. They report primarily using just to feel normal, just to get up and go to work, take care of the kids, and not be sick.
The Anatomy of an Opiate Addict
When we are prescribed or illicitly take opiates our brains hit the jackpot! Not only does this medication already belong in our systems, it’s much more powerful than the stuff we make naturally. If we take the medication or heroin long enough our brain, being a very efficient organ, will reduce or just stop manufacturing the naturally occurring chemicals and rely on you to provide it via drugs. It’s like the brain lays off all the workers and shuts down the factory.
Opiates are highly addictive because the chemical already belong there. The brain would fight off other foreign chemicals such as cocaine or methamphetamines because it sees them as a threat. But with opiates it just says, “Back that truck up and give me as much as you’ve got!” This is called dependency.
Unfortunately, the longer you use opiates the stronger the neural pathways get that support their use. Consequently, the lesser use natural pathways get weaker and less used neural pathways have a tendency to prune themselves to make room for more frequently used neurons/pathways. The brain, fueled by illicit or licit opiate use creates a superhighway that supports that drug use and he old, natural pathways are like rural back roads that aren’t driven anymore, overgrown and broken down. Even if you tried to take the old rural road it would be hard to traverse because of a lack of use.
So, now an individual is completely dependent on opiates and the brain structure has changed to accommodate this drug use. Paying for daily drugs gets expensive quickly as tolerance to the medication increases. This often leads a moral, kind, good person to do awful things they never imagined doing, such as stealing from grandmother, taking money from their kids piggy banks, selling the family jewelry, or robbing someone using physical force. All just to avoid feeling violently ill. All with the intent to make right as soon as they’re feeling better. But, that never comes. There’s always tomorrow and more sickness. The hole just gets deeper. Add to that the growing sense of shame, guilt, and remorse and you have a desperate, self-loathing person and the perfect antidote for feeling sick and hating yourself…use more drugs. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
If a person began using prescription pain medication and developed a dependency, it’s a short jump to heroin. Maintaining a pill addiction is very expensive and heroin is a cheaper, more powerful alternative. Once you use a needle to inject heroin, there’s no going back from there. Your life becomes a hopeless cycle of using drugs, getting high, hustling for money, getting high. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Opiate use now becomes the only way for a person to function as a human. Most of the public lacks this understanding and perpetuates the false belief that if someone really wanted it bad enough they’d just stop using. Science tells us it simply does not work that way.
*In our next post we’ll explore the conditions known as tolerance and withdrawal and why quitting cold-turkey rarely works and can even be dangerous.