How Does Heroin Affect Your Brain?

Heroin owes its mystique to the storied “high” it induces when ingested. Even the name of the drug conjures the stuff of legend. “It’s my wife and it’s my life,” Lou Reed sings about heroin on The Velvet Underground and Nico album. The eponymous song perfectly encapsulates the range and imagery you’ll come across when looking into the description of it, from religious to orgasmic, sacred and profane. “I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can,” Lou Reed goes on:

Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son

So then, how does heroin affect the brain and body? By and large, users report the most intense sensation of relaxation, typically referred to as euphoria. But whatever the words a user employs to capture the fleeting feeling, the heroin “high” is first and foremost a perfect storm of chemical reactions acting directly on the brain. It is critical to comprehend the effect of heroin use on the brain when faced with a beast as formidable as heroin. Then we can commence the process of rehabilitation, when feelings of guilt and shame can take a back-seat to education and healing.

First, however, let’s touch on what heroin has become and its current relevance here in the United States—as this will only showcase how important it is that the masses are educated on how heroin affects the brain.

Information Is Power

The first step to recovering from heroin is understanding that the addiction stems from a literal brainwashing. Once this is fully understood, you and your loved ones can make informed decisions and take action to remedy the situation. This new understanding can also help you and your family to cultivate a sense of compassion. There has never been a time in more need of this, with the current opioid epidemic robbing families of young lives they never would have expected to lose to heroin.

The Opioid Epidemic

Now is the first time in history that some of the most economically stable demographics in the United States, and by extension, the world, have been affected by opioid addiction. The men and women dying from heroin abuse today are not those who would be expected to a few years ago. The stigma surrounding addicts or “junkies” no longer applies. Some 15,500 people who died from overdoses involving heroin in 2016 have nothing to do with those who were dying in the two previous heroin crises, first in the 1950s followed by a surge in the 1990s.

A New Demographic

Most people dying from heroin-related overdoses belong to a demographic that would never have been profiled to take up heroin. They are alarmingly young, averaging at 25 years old. Many come from wealthier communities, some of the wealthiest in the world, in fact. If they aren’t technically wealthy, they were once in a stable enough situation to have access to regular doctor visits, where they were handed prescriptions to perfectly legal painkillers.

The kicker is that these opioids happen to share the same properties and chemical makeup as heroin. In other words, prescription drugs streamlined a generation to take up heroin as a cheaper alternative. The numbers support this conclusion, as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that three out of four new heroin users between 2000 and 2013 abused prescription painkillers before turning to heroin.

The statistics are startling, with 1.5 million people currently and actively using heroin in the U.S. Charts that record the exponential increase in the number of new heroin users are horrifying. Heroin has never been as popular as it is today, and the problem has no end in sight. The number of people falling into its clutches continues to grow, a trend that has never been witnessed to such an extent since the drug’s creation in the 19th century.

A Brief History Of Heroin

Heroin, also known as diamorphine, was first synthesized by a British chemist in search of a supposedly nonaddictive alternative to morphine. The pharmaceutical giant Bayer was so convinced of its safety and effectiveness that it first marketed the drug for children, as a cough suppressant of all things.

The establishment favored heroin over morphine for years following its introduction to the market. In fact, close to half a century of misuse passed before the United States Congress banned the drug, at which point a population of addicts had been created and needed to be sustained as an inevitable part of society. But this number of addicts was ridiculously low by today’s standards. The number isn’t the only thing that has been altered by time. As we mentioned previously, the demographics that represent this addicted population are different, too. However, what the people struggling with heroin addiction compulsively seek is the same, and this is because the way heroin acts on the brain has not changed.

Your Brain On Heroin

When you get down to the brass tax, it becomes clear that the chemical design of heroin manipulates and destroys the brain’s fundamental functioning. Heroin is a semi-synthetic opiate that, like the natural compound it is derived from, morphine, comes from the opium poppy plant. Like morphine, heroin directly works on the neural centers responsible for the two greatest and most powerful motivators of the human psyche; reward and punishment, also known as pleasure and pain. The brain first interprets heroin as morphine. Our enzymes convert the substance into morphine, which allows for the chemical to bind to opioid receptors in the brain.

How Does Heroin Get You “High”?

The molecules that make up heroin bind to the opioid receptors of the brain. These are located in a particular area of a brain cell, or neuron. The binding triggers a signal that floods the brain with dopamine, the chemical responsible for pleasure. From this dopamine release begins a series of responses throughout the opioid system.

Note that this system exists naturally, independently from heroin. In short, the same bodily structures can be triggered by other means. When heroin is ingested, the opioid system of the brain is active in three parts of the nervous system.

The Limbic System

As the brain’s control center for feelings and sensations of pleasure, heroin activates the Limbic System in a significant way. The “high” can be localized in this area of the brain, where the intense rush lives.

The Brainstem

Also triggered is the Brainstem, responsible for basic functioning like regulating cardiac and respiratory processes. As a chemical depressant, heroin can “depress” or slow down the heart so much that it stops. This is one of the ways in which heroin can be lethal.

The Spinal Cord

Heroin has the same pain-relieving properties as morphine. Put simply, heroin and morphine are painkillers. By blocking the communication of pain between neurons, they shield the brain from the messages reporting discomfort.

A Dual-Acting Drug

Heroin thus attacks two fronts. By flooding the brain with pleasure and starving it of pain, the drug successfully brainwashes a user into an artificial, chemically-induced rush. Heroin stimulates the opioid receptors with an intensity that does not exist in the natural world. Indeed, the amount of dopamine that heroin releases can be 1000 times more intense than an otherwise pleasurable experience that has not been enhanced or manipulated by a drug.


Like tasting ambrosia, experiencing the “high” of heroin tends to discolor normal life, leaving previously enjoyable activities stale. Even the most exciting experience can be reduced to nothing after the out-of-body torrent of dopamine that heroin invites. The usual processing of pleasure becomes dissatisfying. Hence addiction, the dogged search for the next “high” or invitation to a synthetic heaven-on-earth that users will eagerly trade their overwhelming dissatisfaction for.


The chemical peaks and valleys of a user’s brain become more and more acute with continued use. The brain devolves to a less balanced place, swinging from one extreme to the other. However, the effect of heroin is more intense on a balanced brain. The initial high for a heroin user is so satisfying because the opioid system it is acting on functions optimally. This first rush cannot be found again so long as the user continues to ingest heroin. This means that the more a person consumes, the more imbalanced their chemical makeup becomes, and the harder it is to reach the desired “high.”

With continued usage, the brain generates more opioid receptors to compensate for the increased amount of heroin being forced upon the system. More receptors require more heroin to match the desired high. But more heroin creates more receptors, thus perpetuating the cycle of addiction. A user will need more heroin to get high, but by doing so will make the pursuit more fleeting.


Left untreated, the chemical Catch-22 of heroin addiction condemns users to a tragic fate. Like the Daughters of Danaus in Greek mythology, punished for eternity to carry water in a perforated vessel, the fate of a heroin addict is almost mythical in its tragedy. With time, addiction becomes dependent. The ways in which heroin initially “helped” the user ends up affecting him or her in an opposite capacity.

Inability To Generate Pleasure

As an individual takes more drugs, the effects of heroin causes the brain to confuse the drug for dopamine itself, relying on heroin to fabricate all feelings of happiness. Despair and depression are common consequences of continued heroin usage. These disorders can lead to suicide attempts. Other negative emotions that increase with use are:

  • Numbness
  • Exhaustion
  • Emotional volatility

Inability To Manage Pain

In the same way that heroin ruins the body’s normal processing of pleasure, heroin erodes a person’s ability to manage pain. The messages of pain that are communicated between the body and brain become louder to compensate for heroin’s numbing effect. Heroin users display signs of hypersensitivity, when the slightest brush on the skin is reported to feel like stabbing pain. They are not overreacting to pain. The problem is that their nervous systems no longer interpret stimulus correctly.

Depending on the severity of the heroin addiction, a person’s hypersensitivity to pain can remain well after the drug has circulated out of the bloodstream. The reaction often lessens with time, but not soon enough to quiet the intensity of the withdrawal symptoms that show up within hours of drug abstinence. Symptoms of withdrawal include but are not limited to:

  • Abdominal cramping, pain, and discomfort, including severe diarrhea
  • Sweats, chills, tremors, and goose bumps
  • Sniffling and tearing
  • Pain and aches throughout the body, in both muscles and bones
  • Agitation, restlessness, and a general sense of anxiousness
  • Insomnia, depression, and fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Abnormally rapid heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle spasms
  • Inability to concentrate

These withdrawal symptoms are bad enough as they are, but their intensity is tenfold for a person whose threshold for pain has been warped by heroin.

The Dangers Of Detox

The way the brain recovers from heroin thus amplifies the discomfort and pain that is expected during withdrawal and rehabilitation. This is but one of the many reasons why going “cold-turkey” when detoxing heroin is dangerous. The detoxification process itself is not the problem, but the exacerbated pain that users experience can prove unbearable enough to push a person to suicide.

To add insult to injury, a person struggling with heroin addiction will often feel misunderstood when it comes to his or her experience of pain. What may seem like nothing to an individual with optimal brain functioning could be horribly painful for a person that is addicted to heroin. Embarrassment and misunderstanding further isolate a user, forcing him or her into the arms of heroin.

How Peaks Recovery Center Can Help

Colorado Springs’ beautiful Peaks Recovery Center provides the medical attention that is needed to ease the symptoms of withdrawal. In addition to onsite, full-time assistance, Peaks Recovery Center proposes a community of peers, so that the young men and women going through rehabilitation feel understood and encouraged, rather than judged and ashamed. Healing begins with forgiveness, and forgiveness requires recognizing that heroin is beating you at your own game by hijacking your brain.

Hope For The Future

Lou Reed wasn’t the only one to think of heroin as his wife. The drug has destroyed countless marriages, families, and entire lives. But addiction does not always have to end in tragedy. With appropriate treatment, a person struggling with heroin addiction can change the course of his or her destiny. The key lies within, in the brain. With correct, scientific information, you and your loved ones can begin to demystify heroin addiction and see it for what it really is: an assault on the brain that, with time and attention, heroin addiction can be treated.

Peaks Recovery Center provides patients with the team of allies they need to succeed in achieving sobriety. The program is designed to help young men and women, aged 18 to 30, through the challenging process of rehabilitation. Offering state-of-the-art medical facilities, gender-specific treatments, and age-appropriate counseling, Peaks Recovery Center is committed to best serve young adults in their journey to recovery. Therapy sessions are conducted in both group and individual settings to foster a sense of community and trust among patients. Camaraderie and friendship among people of the same age do wonders to encourage young people on the path to health. By witnessing others succeed, a young person finds motivation to thrive and one day become a role model for others. After all, what goes around, comes around.

Drug & Alcohol Detox

Peaks Recovery is medically staffed by a primary care physician, a psychiatrist, and round-the-clock nursing. The medical team’s acumen provides the safest medical detox in Colorado.

Inpatient & Residential Treatment

Peaks Recovery is licensed to provide the highest level of inpatient and residential programming in Colorado. In addition to satisfying state criteria, we have further received the highest recognition from the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) for our 3.7 and 3.5 levels of care.

IOP Treatment

Peaks Recovery provides accommodating support for individuals who may be experiencing some obstacles in their recovery journey or are looking for a step down from an inpatient program.

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