How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

Using heroin can impact various parts of your body in a number of different ways, but some of the most damaging effects of heroin actually occur in the brain.

Using heroin can impact various parts of your body in a number of different ways, but some of the most damaging effects of heroin actually occur in the brain. When you inject, sniff, snort, or smoke heroin, the drug enters your body and binds to opioid receptors in the brain’s cortex, limbic system, and stem, which work together to form your brain’s reward system. This means that heroin use can affect the way you think and process information, how you react emotionally to the world around you, and even how you breathe, sleep, and eat. One puff, snort, sniff, or injection of heroin can hijack these areas of the brain, which can have severe and long-lasting effects.

What is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance that comes from the poppy plant. Even though heroin comes from a natural plant, the substance is illegal and highly addictive. Different processes of making the drug can result in different colored heroin. Most often, the substance is a white or brown powder, but “black tar heroin” can be black and sticky like tar or hard like coal.

The Drug Enforcement Agency lists heroin as a Schedule I drug, which means the substance has no accepted medical use but a high potential for abuse. Regardless, heroin is often used because the opioid has the ability to temporarily relieve pain. Unfortunately, the same process that allows heroin to relieve pain is the same process that triggers the drug’s harsh effects on the brain.

What Heroin Does to Your Brain

When you’re in pain, your brain produces natural opioid chemicals to help relieve discomfort and aching. Most times these naturally occurring opiates don’t last for a very long time and may not be strong enough to help ease chronic pain. Heroin, on the other hand, works like a very strong version of the natural opioid chemicals in your brain. Heroin enters your body and binds itself to your brain’s opioid receptors. Because of heroin’s high potency, the substance releases an influx of dopamine and other neurotransmitters that help you feel relaxed, happy, and free from pain. Unfortunately, this is where problems in the brain begin. The more the brain encounters synthetic opioids, the less likely it is to produce natural opioids, making it more difficult for the brain to go drug-free.

Heroin Stops The Brain from Producing Its Own Opioids

  • When you use heroin, your brain’s opioid receptors absorb a large number of opioids from an external source. As a result, your brain produces less endogenous, or natural, opioids. Having fewer natural opioids to help ward off pain can cause your brain to rely on the pain relief that heroin provides. As you continue to rely on heroin, your brain begins to develop a physical dependence on the drug. Once your brain becomes chemically dependent on heroin, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop using the drug. In addition to becoming physically dependent on heroin, your brain’s tolerance for the substance may increase as well, meaning you’ll need larger doses of the drug to have the same pain-relieving and euphoric effects.

Heroin May Cause Cognitive Impairment

  • Long-term use of heroin can severely impair the brain. Using heroin for a long period of time allows harmful proteins to build up in the brain. Chronic heroin use can also inflame the brain and cause structural changes similar to those associated with Alzheimer’s disease. When this happens, you might experience dementia-like symptoms such as mental decline, confusion, personality changes, lack of restraint, depression, nervousness, paranoia, and memory loss.

Heroin Use Can Deteriorate White Matter in The Brain

  • Excessive or continual use of heroin can destroy the white matter in your brain. Losing large amounts of white matter can negatively impact your ability to reason and make decisions. A decreased amount of white matter in the brain might also make it hard for you to regulate your behavior and deal with stress.

Heroin Can Create Long-Term Imbalances In The Brain

  • Long-term use of heroin can change the physical structure of your brain, which throws neurological and hormonal systems out of balance. Reduced sex hormones as a result of heroin use can cause depression, chronic fatigue, osteoporosis, and loss of muscle mass. Hypogonadism, or a failure of the gonads and testes in men and ovaries in women, is another side effect of chronic opioid abuse. Neurological imbalance can cause genetic disorders, infections, strokes, seizures, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. Even though you can reverse some hormonal and neurological imbalances, others are irreversible or may be difficult to treat even after you stop using heroin.

Other Ways Heroin Affects The Brain

Recreational use of heroin can also affect the brain by:

  • Causing respiratory suppression which can decrease the amount of oxygen to the brain and increase your risk of brain damage
  • Disrupting the brain’s delicate balance of neurotransmitters by flooding the brain with dopamine, which can cause anxiety, mania, stress, aggression, and poor impulse control
  • Altering the vascular structure, or blood vessels, of the brain, which can cause strokes, aneurysms, and other cerebrovascular changes that damage the brain

How We Restore the Brain’s Optimum Level of Health

Heroin can damage the brain in many ways but here at StoneRidge Centers, we treat addiction by working to restore the brain to its optimum state of health. Our heroin addiction treatment programs combine the best of brain science with expert clinical support. We walk alongside our patients as they learn evidence-based therapy techniques to overcome addiction challenges, adopt a nutritious diet, and begin an appropriate exercise regimen. Recovering from heroin addiction may not be easy, but long-term sobriety is possible.

Heroin doesn’t have to control your life. Contact us today at 928-583-7799 if you or a loved one are dealing with addiction challenges and are looking to rehabilitate your life and restore your brain’s health.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

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Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

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qEEG/Brain Mapping
Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients' brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.

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Neurofeedback
This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

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Spravato Therapy
We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

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Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

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Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)
Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

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Individual Therapy
Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

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Group/Family Therapy
Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space. .
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