Effects of Heroin on the Brain

Heroin, a potent opioid, profoundly impacts the brain, altering both its structure and function, which can lead to severe and lasting consequences. When heroin enters the system, it binds rapidly to opioid receptors, unleashing a surge of euphoria and a potent sense of well-being. However, this initial sensation comes with a high cost. This article will explore the specific effects of heroin on the brain, highlighting the broader implications for cognitive and emotional health.

Mechanism of Action

To understand the effects of heroin on the brain, we must first know how it acts. There are receptors in the brain called mu-opioid receptors (MORs). Heroin and its metabolites bind to and activate these receptors. Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring substances in our bodies that generally bind to and activate these receptors without the intervention of substances like heroin. These receptors are activated to regulate pain, release hormones, and have feelings associated with well-being.

The inside of a skull with a brain lit up
Heroin use can impact neurotransmitter systems over time.

Effects of Heroin on the Brain: Short-Term and Long-Term Effects

Heroin affects the brain and body in both the short and long term. There is always a risk of death, brain damage, and getting into a coma, even if you only use heroin once. Heroin stays in your system for 2-4 days after last use, which can increase the risk of overdose if you consume heroin again before your system has fully gotten rid of the last dose.

Short-Term Effects of Heroin Use

When heroin enters your body, it quickly becomes morphine. Immediately after morphine binds to your brain’s opioid receptors, you’ll feel a pleasurable sensation. Some people who use heroin describe it as a “rush.” After this rush, you’ll get symptoms like these.

  • warm flushing of the skin
  • dry mouth
  • a heavy feeling in your extremities
  • nausea and vomiting
  • severe itching

After these initial effects of heroin on the brain and body, you will feel drowsy for several hours. Your mental functions will be clouded, and your heart function will slow down. Breathing also will be significantly slowed down. This can be dangerous as it can lead to death, brain damage, or a coma.

Using heroin gives you a dopamine rush. This can generate addiction as a sudden dopamine rush is perceived by the body as a reward. You will feel compelled to use it again to feel this rush again.

Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use

If you use heroin repeatedly over an extended period of time, the physical structure and physiology of your brain will change. This is so because there are neuronal and hormonal imbalances that take place after heroin is used long-term, and said changes are difficult to reverse. White matter in the brain has been proven to deteriorate after long-term heroin use. This may affect areas of the brain that involve decision-making, behavior regulation, and responses to stress.

Heroin can also generate both tolerance and physical dependence. This can lead to withdrawal syndrome if you stop using abruptly. Major withdrawal occurs between 24 and 48 hours after the last use. However, people have had withdrawal symptoms for as long as many months after the last use. Even casual use of heroin can easily lead to heroin use disorder because of how addictive the drug can be, especially if injected or smoked, and the methods by which the drug reaches the brain the fastest.

A hand holding a realistic-looking brain
Heroin use can lead to reduction in grey matter.

Neurochemical Changes

Heroin use can lead to significant neurological changes, affecting various regions of the brain and neurotransmitter systems. Outpatient detox rehab in PA is prepared to help you stop using the substance, so the neurological changes and damage don’t get worse. Here are some of the neurological changes that it produces:

#1 – Dysregulation of Dopamine System

Among the effects of heroin on the brain is the fact that it acts primarily on the brain’s reward system, increasing the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Using it over a certain period of time can lead to a dysregulation in the dopamine system. This results in decreased dopamine production and sensitivity. This can increase physical dependence and tolerance to both heroin and other addictive substances.

#2 – Changes in Neurotransmitter Systems

Besides dopamine, heroin affects other neurotransmitter systems in the brain, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). Chronic heroin use can disrupt the balance of these neurotransmitters, leading to alterations in mood, arousal, and stress response.

#3 – Disruption of Stress Response

Heroin use can dysregulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the body’s primary stress response system. Chronic heroin use may lead to abnormalities in cortisol levels and stress hormone regulation, increasing vulnerability to stress-related disorders and exacerbating mental health symptoms.

#4 – Increased Risks of Neurological Disorders and Vulnerability to Neurological Complications

Chronic heroin use is associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders, such as movement disorders (e.g., Parkinson’s disease), neurocognitive disorders (e.g., dementia), and peripheral neuropathy (damage to peripheral nerves), which can manifest as numbness, tingling, or weakness in the limbs. Heroin use is associated with an increased risk of neurological complications, including:

  • stroke
  • seizures
  • and infectious diseases of the central nervous system, such as meningitis or encephalitis, particularly among individuals who inject the drug intravenously.

#5 – Development of Opioid Receptors

Chronic heroin use leads to the upregulation of opioid receptors in the brain, particularly mu-opioid receptors, which mediate the drug’s effects on pain perception and reward. This upregulation contributes to tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of drug use.

A neuron lit up in purple
Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring substances in the brain in charge of pain management, pleasure, and other important activities.

Physical Changes in the Brain

Prolonged heroin use can lead to structural changes in the brain, including reductions in gray matter volume, particularly in regions involved in decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation, such as the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. These structural changes may contribute to cognitive deficits and difficulties in executive function observed in individuals with heroin use disorder.

The hands of a doctor and his patient talking about effects of heroin on the brain
Chronic heroin use can lead to several health issues including but not limited to pneumonia, neurological issues, and mental illnesses.

Medical Complications of Chronic Heroin Use

The lifespan of a heroin addict is shorter than individuals who don’t use it because of how dangerous the substance is. Insomnia, constipation, and lung complications, including tuberculosis and pneumonia, can result from extended heroin use. People with a male reproductive system can experience sexual dysfunction. People with female reproductive systems can experience irregularities in their periods if they’re using heroin.

Different administration methods also lead to their own specific medical problems. For instance, people who regularly snort heroin can end up with damage to the protective mucus on the inside of their noses. People who inject heroin are more vulnerable to getting hepatitis B or C, as well as HIV.

Other medical consequences include:

  • collapsed veins
  • bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves
  • abscesses and other soft skin infections
  • infection or even death of small patches of cells in the body

Behavioral and Psychological Effects

Some of the behavioral and psychological effects include, but are not limited to:

  • Individuals developing major depressive disorder and antisocial personality disorder
  • Mood swings that may lead to social isolation, failure in performing daily tasks, and relationship problems
  • Cognitive impairment and memory loss
  • Impaired judgment and decision-making
  • Social isolation and withdrawal

Especially if they persist over time, these behavioral and psychological effects can lead the individual to severe consequences. These include job loss or poor performance, the breakdown of healthy relationships, the dependents of the heroin user being at increased risk, and others.

People start using heroin for a variety of reasons, but it doesn’t help that a lot of individuals who turn to this substance are already struggling psychologically, perhaps with another undiagnosed mental illness they are trying to self-medicate for. Heroin use only increases psychological symptoms and makes them worse over time.

A model of a brain coming out of the profile of a human head, it becomes a cable and there is a red heart, too
Social isolation is among the behavioral and psychological effects of heroin on the brain.

Addiction and Dependence Issues

Heroin dependence and addiction develop through a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Heroin acts on the brain’s opioid receptors which are involved in the regulation of pain perception, reward, and mood. Chronic heroin use leads to neuroadaptive changes in the brain, including alterations in neurotransmitter systems such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These neurochemical changes contribute to the development of tolerance, dependence (experiencing withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of drug use), and addiction (compulsive drug-seeking behavior despite negative consequences).

Psychological factors, such as stress, trauma, or co-occurring mental health disorders, can increase vulnerability to heroin dependence and addiction. Individuals may use heroin as a means of coping with emotional distress, trauma, or psychiatric symptoms, leading to self-medication and the development of addictive behaviors. Environmental factors, such as peer pressure, social norms, availability of drugs, and exposure to trauma or adverse childhood experiences, can also contribute to the development of heroin dependence and addiction. Individuals who grow up in environments where drug use is prevalent or who have a history of trauma or adverse life events may be at increased risk of developing substance use disorders.

With continued heroin use, individuals may experience physical dependence, characterized by tolerance and withdrawal symptoms when the drug is not available. The need to avoid withdrawal symptoms and alleviate discomfort drives continued drug use, perpetuating the cycle of dependence and addiction.

Signs of heroin use include small pupils even in dim lighting, track marks or puncture wounds in the skin, a droopy appearance, slurred speech, itchiness and scratching, shallow breathing, nausea, and fluctuations in weight. A heavy heroin user will also have poor hygiene, sudden changes in mood or behavior, relationship problems with family and friends, and a loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

The withdrawal symptoms from heroin use can be life-threatening in some cases. They include:

  • Flu-like symptoms, like a runny nose, muscle spasms, and joint ache, as well as generalized body discomfort
  • Gastrointestinal distress, including nausea, vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea
  • Sweating and chills
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Insomnia and other sleep disturbances
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Depression and other dysphoric feelings
  • Dilated pupils and teary eyes
  • Muscle spasms and tremors
  • Difficulties with concentration, memory, and attention

Inpatient drug rehab centers in Pennsylvania are ready to deal with patients presenting all of these withdrawal symptoms. If this is you or someone you love, don’t hesitate to get help. These symptoms can be dangerous, so quitting heroin on your own can be a risky decision to make.

A bigger piece of paper with recovery printed on it is in the center among smaller pieces of paper that also say recovery
Recovering from heroin is possible with the right treatment.

Recovery and Treatment

As heroin can generate withdrawal symptoms, people admitted into heroin rehab centers generally start out with Medication-assisted treatment or MAT. Not everyone qualifies for MAT. First, a team of professionals will interview you to get a better idea of the extent of your use of the substance and your motivation to quit. If you are approved for MAT, you will receive FDA-approved substances under medical supervision to ameliorate your withdrawal symptoms for a period of time. During this time, you will not get started on therapy yet.

Once you have successfully completed MAT, you will start out with talk therapy, both one-on-one with a certified therapist and in groups with people who have similar mental health struggles. Professionals will also consider whether you qualify for dual diagnosis treatment. This means a doctor will screen you for another mental illness (other than a substance use disorder). Mental health conditions like BPD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia can lead you to enter a vicious cycle and do even more substances while you’re dysregulated or triggered.

During recovery, you will also develop healthy coping mechanisms and other strategies to deal with the stressors of the outside world. This is why, at Lake Creek Recovery, the patients take yoga classes and receive art therapy. Some people complete treatment and start leading normal lives, showing up to therapy appointments to avoid relapse once or twice a week.

Others may need to spend time at sober living houses in PA. These are houses where you are no longer monitored by doctors, but you live with other people in recovery in a supportive environment where substances aren’t allowed.

Get Help at Little Creek Recovery

Among the effects of heroin on the brain, we can observe the fact it produces long-term damage to the brain. It produces imbalances in the neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and GABA. It also makes people more susceptible to developing all sorts of illnesses, from neurological illnesses like Parkinson’s disease to physical illnesses like pneumonia to mental illnesses like major depressive disorder. Even short-term heroin use can have as dramatic an effect as death, brain damage, or getting into a c0ma. If you or someone you love is struggling with heroin use, healing your brain after addiction is possible if you get the right help. Contact Little Creek today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

“Adventure trek is always popular”

Little creek lodge is such an amazing place for people who want to make a serious change in their life. I’ve watched my loved one grow immensely through his recovery with the help of the caring staff and engaging programs. Adventure trek is always popular on the agenda!

Annabelle Stiso |

Take the First Step Towards a Healthier Life

Let Little Creek Recovery Center guide you down the right path to recovery, personal growth, and long-term sobriety.

Begin Today

Need Help?

Contact Us 24/7


Contact Us

For Help Today Email or Call us at 877-689-2644.

Little Creek Lodge 359 Easton Turnpike Hamlin, PA 18427