The effects of Heroin on the body and brain

Effects of heroin on body & brain

Heroin is a highly addictive opioid drug and its use has repercussions that extend far beyond the individual user. Disruptions in the family, workplace incidents, crime and violence are just some of the impacts that this drug can have on the user. According to the 2017 UK Drug Report, Opioids, particularly heroin, remain associated with the highest health and social harm caused by illicit drugs in the UK. There are both medical and social consequences in the use of heroin.

How it’s produced

Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants. Pure heroin can be snorted or smoked, which appeals to some users as it eliminates the stigma associated with injecting heroin and the further consequences caused by that. Impure heroin is usually dissolved, diluted and injected into veins, muscles or under the skin.

The effects

Once heroin enters the body it binds to and activates specific receptors in the brain. Our bodies have natural occurring chemicals called neurotransmitters that bind to these receptors throughout the brain and body to regulate pain and release hormones. The consequences of consuming heroin is that a competition has started for the right to bind to these receptors. This competition depends on a variety of factors such as how much heroin has been used, where in the brain or body it binds, how strongly it binds and for how long & quickly it takes to get there.

On entrance to the body, heroin converts to morphine which can rapidly bind to these receptors. Heroin users report feeling a surge of pleasurable sensation – a ‘rush.’ The intensity of this ‘rush’ can be an indicator of how much drug is taken. With heroin the rush is normally accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, nausea and vomiting. After these initial effects users are normally drowsy for several hours, mental function becomes clouded, heart function slows and breathing is also severely slowed sometimes enough to be life threatening. Slowed breathing can also lead to a coma and permanent brain damage.

Repeated heroin use changes the physical structure of the brain, creating long-term imbalances that are not easily reversed. Heroin also produces various degrees of tolerance and physical dependence. Tolerance occurs when larger quantities of the drug is required to achieve the same effects. With physical dependence the body adapts to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms occur. Withdrawal may occur within a few hours after the last time the drug is taken. Symptoms of withdrawal include restlessness, muscle and bone pain and insomnia.

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