There are few drugs that are as devastating or addictive as heroin – and that’s truer today than ever before. As our country is facing a massive opioid problem, we must understand what opioids are, which opioids are most dangerous, what makes opioids addictive, and why they’re central to the problem that’s taken so many lives in the past few decades.
Opioids have innocent beginnings. All opioids can chemically be traced to the poppy flower, either as part of their production or as a chemical analog to opium.
Opium comes from the sap of the poppy plant. Opiates are opium derivates, including codeine, morphine and heroin. Opioids include all drugs that act on opioid receptors in the brain, including synthetic opioids which are commonly used in pharmaceutical drugs.
The poppy and its milky latex juice have been a potent painkiller for humans since the dawn of civilization. The Sumerians, the world’s oldest and earliest complex civilization, first cultivated and used opium over five thousand years ago.
Since then, science has helped us refine and further narrow down the chemical compound that gives opium its addictive and pleasurable properties that makes opioids addictive. Even as a natural plant product, opium was a dangerous force for addiction. Its history is equal parts good and bad, as a revolutionary tool in medicine and a catalyst in wars, conflicts and cultural crises like the Opium Wars.
The Silk Road expanded the distribution of opium to the rest of the world’s empires, kingdoms and civilizations – as it has done even recently. And ever since, opium and its derivatives have been used to kill pain, and dull the senses. How exactly the drug achieves this is part of how all addictions begin – by entering the bloodstream, and interacting with special receptors in the cells of your central nervous system that makes opioids addictive.
How Addiction Works
Addiction has several mechanisms, and it’s hard to pinpoint one mechanism as being the sole reason for a person’s condition. While neurological changes are always present, they’re not only the result of foreign substances. Behaviors, such as gambling and gaming, can illicit an addictive response. Emotions play a part in how addiction develops as well. But for the most part, addiction is related to the brain, and how we perceive pleasure.
So, in a way, addiction is a flaw in how we think and feel, one that can be exploited through our reward system. Drugs like opioids are especially effective at exploiting this system. The chemicals in opium products enter the bloodstream and make their way to the brain, where they bind with proteins called opioid receptors. The receptors induce a feeling of euphoria. While doing so, they severely dull pain. The appeal is obvious – but beyond that appeal, the brain can very quickly develop a reaction to opioids.
Opioids’ painkilling effects aren’t solely to blame for their addictiveness. Acetaminophen, also known as Tylenol, isn’t addictive – but it blocks pain. The same goes for ibuprofen (Advil). There’s more to it in an opioid.
The Science Of What Makes Opioids Addictive
Opioids are addictive because they exploit the brain’s reward system. We’re complex creatures, but in many ways, we’re also quite simple. We seek pleasure, through things like sex, food, and even attention. These things trigger the release of dopamine in our brain, and make us happy. This creates a cycle that incentivizes us to keep looking for ways to pursue the things that make us happy. Though part of what makes opioids addictive, that’s not quite enough to create an addiction. Most people like sex, and donuts, and hugs from their loved ones. But most people aren’t addicted to these things.
Drugs like opioids also create a system of tolerance and withdrawal. Because the euphoria triggered by opioids is not part of the brain’s natural reward response, your cells develop a tolerance to the drug. However, the memory of the pleasure of those first few hits remains, and it drives you to take a higher dosage. Stopping, on the other hand, triggers withdrawal, which is an adverse reaction to a lack of opioids in the system caused by your body “normalizing” your usage of opioids.
Withdrawal can be painful, and both physiologically and psychologically difficult to deal with. But tolerance also puts your addiction on a timer, increasing the dangers you might go through to find more opioids, and increasing the risk of an overdose death.
What makes opioids addictive is because they’re extremely potent. Drugs like heroin and fentanyl are very, very addictive, and very, very deadly. They’re also a natural step in progression for someone addicted to prescription opioids, like oxycodone, which is less potent than heroin.
America’s Opioid Problem
The growth of opioids as a problem in America originated in a combined effort from many healthcare organizations to combat chronic pain through an increased prescription and sale of powerful controlled painkillers. This over-prescription led to America being the world’s biggest consumers of opioids – and it led to an excess of nonmedical use, and the beginning of a new wave of opioid addiction cases and overdoses.
Today, the problem has evolved beyond prescription drugs. Due to stricter regulations, these are harder to find than heroin, which has recently become more popular throughout our 50 states.
Fighting a heroin addiction is famously difficult – but not impossible. There are several misconceptions around heroin, including the idea that it’s so potently addictive that a single hit is enough to hook someone for life.
Not only is that impossible, but it doesn’t make sense given the medical use of powerful opioids like morphine during surgery or after major physical trauma. However, drugs like heroin are still very potent and there is plenty that makes opioids addictive. That said, there is abundant treatment for heroin addiction, and many people are living proof that treatment works.
Seeking Opioid Treatment
There are medical treatments for opioid addiction, including weaning people off heroin with methadone, or through opioid antagonists. But that’s only part of the solution. Opioid treatment also requires the development of a new lifestyle without the drug – and that means living a better, sober life and with new friends.
Men’s and women’s sober living facilities in Houston are perfect for people who struggle to stay clean initially, making them ideal for former heroin addicts, because of the drug’s relapse levels. However, medical rehab is a better first step due to what makes opioids addictive beyond most other drugs, especially to transition through a painful withdrawal phase.
For those who first got hooked to opioids through a medical need for painkillers, the biggest factor in effective treatment is finding an alternative against the pain. This isn’t easy – but alternatives do exist.