15 Mar The Long-Term Effects of Using Heroin
Heroin is one of the most addictive substances on the planet. In fact, according to some experts, it is not just in the top ten, but number one. Heroin causes tolerance and withdrawal more quickly than any other drug. This cycle leads to addiction in a matter of just a week or two of regular use. Because the withdrawal symptoms are so severe, ceasing to use heroin is a nearly insurmountable task.
The importance, however, of quitting cannot be overstated. Heroin takes a devastating toll on a person’s body, mind, and life. Very quickly, it alters the chemistry of the brain and makes permanent changes to it. Without help, coming clean from heroin is next to impossible, but with the right care and the support of loved ones, it can be done. The harm caused cannot be fully reversed, but the odds of returning to health and a normal lifestyle are good.
Heroin is a synthetic drug, meaning that it does not occur naturally but is made in a laboratory. It was first synthesized in the 1800s from the naturally-occurring drug morphine. Morphine is a compound that is found in the flower of the opium poppy. It is used as a potent prescription painkiller. When scientists created heroin from morphine, they initially believed that they had a better drug that was less addictive. Labeled heroin, this new compound was briefly used as a painkiller and as a cough suppressant. Doctors and researchers quickly realized that it was, in fact, highly addictive, and heroin was eventually made illegal.
Heroin, like morphine, belongs to a class of drugs called opioids. Opioids are compounds that affect the body and brain by attaching to opioid receptors. These receptors are found in the gastrointestinal tract and the central and peripheral nervous systems. When attached to the receptors, opioids cause short-term effects such as a feeling of euphoria, a flush to the skin, a dry mouth, slurred speech, slow movements, and sometimes vomiting, constipation, and difficulty breathing. The euphoric rush is why heroin is abused. Many claim it is a better feeling than that provided by any other drug.
Heroin in the Brain
Heroin has the ability to get into the brain very quickly from the bloodstream. This is one reason why it produces such a profound and extreme high when injected into veins. When taken orally, heroin gets metabolized into morphine and the resulting high is less significant. Although heroin acts on receptors in the gut and in the peripheral nervous system as well, it is the action in the brain that is responsible for most of the symptoms and dangers of heroin.
Once in the brain, heroin binds to opioid receptors and produces its effects by resulting in the release of certain chemicals called neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitter responsible for the euphoric feeling is dopamine. When the receptors are activated by heroin, dopamine floods the brain. A natural high feeling occurs when much less dopamine is released in the wake of a pleasurable experience.
Coming down from a heroin high feels bad because the brain has essentially used up all of its dopamine in creating the initial rush. Without any of the pleasure chemical left in the brain, the after effects include a dismal sort of feeling. As the brain recovers, it makes more dopamine and the bad feeling begins to lift. With continued use, the brain starts to shut down the manufacture of dopamine and it takes more and more heroin to get the flood of the neurotransmitter and the accompanying euphoric feeling. Before long, the user becomes dependent on taking in heroin to get any feeling of pleasure.
Over time, the changes that heroin produces on the dopamine pathway in the brain become at least partly permanent. The ultimate long-term effect of using heroin is addiction because of these changes. Even when a heroin addict gets clean and successfully stays clean, he carries these alterations in his brain and is forever an addict. He will always feel a struggle, to some extent, to resist the urge to use heroin or another substance to feel a normal sense of pleasure.
Besides the devastating and permanent changes in the brain, heroin creates other long-term health problems. These include collapsed veins, infections in the heart, damaged kidneys, abscesses, infectious diseases (when needles are shared), and arthritis.
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