How Opiates Affect the Brain & Body
January 24, 2019
January 24, 2019
Opiate abuse has become a crisis in our nation, and has even been declared a public health emergency. Accounts of opiate addiction are increasing at an alarming rate, and are often associated with prescription drug abuse and misuse. With the instances of opiate addiction being so high, both the public, and the medical community, are calling for alternatives to this once-respected treatment. Below is a sampling of the type of effects that this drug has on the brain and body.
Opioids cause changes in the brain through binding to certain receptors. These receptors are instructed, by the drug, to release chemicals. These chemical releases are similar to those which otherwise occur, naturally, through engaging in pleasurable activities. Not only does the brain come to rely on this artificial release, it can begin to associate certain situations with the anticipation of receiving the drug. This association is best known as Pavlovian conditioning, where places, events, and scenarios can trigger a user’s desire for the drug.
Over time, the brain can develop a dependence on the effects of the drug. What was once able to be produced naturally has now received the message that it is no longer needed. In a sense, the brain gets lazy. An individual is subtly encouraged, by the brain, to continue supplying the needed chemicals through consumption of the substance.
With dependence comes tolerance, or the need to consume higher levels of the drug in order to produce similar pleasure. The receptors for the opiates become desensitized, and more of the drug is needed in order to experience prior sensations of gratification. Those who are using opioids for pain relief are likely to experience breakthrough pain, and will commonly seek a higher dosage from their practitioner to manage it. Those who are using the opioids illegally will find that they are not experiencing as much of high, and may engage in drug-seeking behavior.
The effects of opiate usage on a developing brain are very pronounced. Studies of children exposed to opiates in utero reveal that exposed children suffer from lower mental capabilities, regardless of how they are raised after birth. This impairment of cognitive ability does not improve, and has been found to get even worse, over time, for some. Children exposed to opiates before birth can suffer for life.
The physical structure of the adult brain is also found to be affected by opioid dependence. Those with a prolonged history of usage were discovered as having less gray matter in the frontal areas of the brain than the average non-user. Not only does gray matter hold the neurons for physical activity, it has also been found to regulate social attitudes, such as extension of empathy and exercise of conscience. This lends itself to the concept that prolonged opioid usage reduces the user’s ability to engage in compassion and pro-social behavior. As these studies of reduced gray matter were conducted on deceased individuals, it is not known whether the matter can be recovered after abstaining from the drug.
Prior to the growing awareness of the dangers of prescribing opioids, the drug was even considered as a solution for binge eating and obesity. The properties of the drug were found to block the receptors in the brain which affect the release of pleasure chemicals related to eating, thereby causing enjoyable foods to lose their appeal. An opioid user can lose the ability to enjoy eating.
Opiates reduce heartbeat and breathing rates, which contribute to the sensation of being relaxed. The downside of this depression of aerobic activity is that the brain is often not able to receive enough blood and oxygen to function properly. In cases of overdose, the ability to breathe becomes impossible, and many have died due to lack of oxygen to the brain.
In regard to the effect of opiates on appetite, impact on the body can go either way. In one instance, a user may find that the lack of pleasure gained from eating – especially when combined with experiences of nausea and vomiting – results in severe weight loss. In other instances, the user will find her or himself consuming even more food, in an attempt to regain the pleasure of eating. This latter scenario can contribute to obesity for the user. Both undernourishment, and over-nourishment, are significant physical health risks.
There are also gastrointestinal effects. Opioid users can suffer from an acute form of constipation, called OIC. This occurs due to the substance relaxing the intestinal function, resulting in a build-up of matter. When the intestines are not clear, they are not able to absorb fluid and nutrients, which can lead to dehydration and further malnutrition. The prescribing of oral laxatives is often called for in these situations, which can be problematic if the user is also suffering the common side effects of nausea and stomach pain.
As if these effects were not enough, prolonged opioid use can also negatively affect sex drive sexual drive and performance. Erectile dysfunction has been noted in males who use opioids, and desire was found to decrease for both males and females using the drug. Males who persist in opioid usage can suffer a sharp reduction in testosterone production.
The experience of physical withdrawal from opiates can be extremely unpleasant for the body. The process of withdrawal can begin within 1-2 days from last dosage, and can begin with a feeling of being on edge. As it progresses, the symptoms can can mimic a severe flu, complete with nausea, diarrhea, and chills. Treatment centers can be utilized to reduce the severity of these symptoms while detoxing from the drug.
The negative effects of opiates don’t end with these detriments to the brain and body. There are many more consequences, some of which are only now being studied. Those struggling with opioid abuse and addiction often experience psychological and relationship trauma, as well, which extends the issue far beyond physical concerns.