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What Opiates Do to Your Brain Chemistry

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Opiates help you manage pain, or they make you feel “good” when you’re sad, mad, bored or lonely. These effects are temporary and often deceiving. Opiates don’t treat pain, they just mask it. And opiates tend to make mental health and mood worse over time, not better.

No matter your reasons for taking opiates, you may find yourself addicted and struggled to quit. All of these effects, good and bad, result from what opiates do to your brain chemistry.

Opiates Rewire Your Brain Chemistry

Drugs are addictive because of how they affect brain chemistry. Opiates are prescription pain-relief drugs. They work by attaching to receptors in the brain. This can cause pain relief, but a big enough dose causes a powerful high.

Neon brainAddiction Science and Clinical Practice reports: “The linkage of these chemicals with the receptors triggers the same biochemical brain processes that reward people with feelings of pleasure when they engage in activities that promote basic life functions.”1

These drugs work because they change brain chemistry to mask pain at the same time they reward people with even stronger versions of the good feelings that eating, sex and sleeping produce. Pleasurable feelings can come as a side effect of prescribed use, or it can be the reason someone abuses a prescription or takes opiates without a prescription.

Over time, the “high” and the pain relief opiates provide begin to fade. Your brain chemistry adjusts to the presence of these drugs. Users may be tempted to take larger doses, but brain chemistry will continue to adjust so that this new, larger dose gradually becomes less effective as well. This is when dependence, abuse and addiction begin.

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Opiates and Your Health

The potential risks of opiate use are so great that the Centers for Disease Control is urging doctors to avoid prescribing powerful opiate painkillers for chronic pain patients. The CDC’s data shows that about 40 Americans are dying each day from prescription painkiller overdose. The nation’s top federal health agency explains that the risks from morphine-like drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin far outweigh the benefits for most people.2


Genetics May Be Involved When the Brain Responds to Opiates

illustration of DNARepeated, increased use isn’t the only factor involved in addiction. Genetics and your natural brain chemistry determine if and how quickly addiction sets in. Psychiatric Genetics notes that “genetic factors, both those shared by addiction to several drugs of abuse and those specific for addiction to a given drug, contribute approximately 40-60% of the risk of developing opiate addiction… Genetic predisposition may explain why approximately one-third of those self-exposed to opiates become addicted.”3

Genetics play a role in how brain and body chemistry change during opiate abuse. If you know substance abuse or addiction run in your family, be careful when using opiates or any addictive substances. While anyone can become addicted because of the changes opiates cause to brain chemistry, you may have a higher risk factor than others.

Mental Health Is Related to Brain Chemistry and Opiate Addiction

Co-occurring mental disorders further complicate brain chemistry and addiction. Overlapping factors contribute to both substance use disorders and other mental health conditions.

Find Opiate Addiction Recovery, Rebalance Brain Chemistry

Luckily no matter your risk factors, your current health or the personal challenges you face, you can find recovery. Your brain and body can heal. You can learn how to manage your mental health. Michael’s House is here to help you understand your options and how you can begin the healing process today.

Please reach out to us at 760.548.4032 to learn more about brain chemistry, addiction and recovery.


1 Kosten, Thomas R., and Tony P. George. “The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment.” Science & Practice Perspectives. Jul. 2002.

2 Szabo, Liz. “Doctors Told to Stop Prescribing Opiates for Chronic Pain.” USA Today. 15 Mar. 2016.

3 Nielsen, David A. et al. “Genome-Wide Association Study Identifies Genes That May Contribute to Risk for Developing Heroin Addiction.” Psychiatric Genetics. 2010.

4 Comorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Illnesses.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Feb. 2018.