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How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

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As the prevalence of heroin increases, so does the chance that you or someone you know has had a run in of some kind with this highly addictive and dangerous drug. What makes heroin so addictive, and why is it so difficult for those who have started using the drug to stop without help? Throughout this article you will begin to understand the way that heroin affects the brain of the individual who uses it and how these effects are what makes this drug so potent.

Without realizing it, many people find themselves addicted to heroin and in need of help. The good news is that this help is available. If you or a loved one are struggling to break free from the grip of heroin or any other addictive substance Guardian Recovery is willing and able to provide the treatment, expertise, and education required to begin a life of recovery. Call today to speak with an admissions coordinator about your options.

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Heroin & Opioid Effects on Brain Function

Heroin is classified as a semi-synthetic opioid (1). This means that it is derived from the naturally occurring substance opium with the addition of several chemical additives not found to naturally occur. Opioids are central nervous depressants affecting the brain and body in a number of very specific ways.

Opioid Receptors

Opioid receptors (2) are located in the brain and are responsible for sending and receiving messages through chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are responsible for carrying signals throughout the brain to regulate the body’s pain, hormone release, and feelings of well-being. Heroin binds to and activates these specific receptors causing the release of unnaturally high doses of certain neurotransmitters.

Interaction With Dopamine & Serotonin

Two of the specific neurotransmitters most affected by heroin are dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine (2) is one of the neurotransmitters in the brain that plays a major role in the body’s reward system. Used naturally to reinforce positive behaviors that the body wants you to replicate, it has the same effect when activated by heroin, often much more dramatically. Serotonin (3) is a neurotransmitter responsible for a host of functions in the brain and body, most notably mood stabilization and bodily functions like movement, temperature, heart beat, and respirations. When heroin begins to interact with this neurotransmitter, the result is dramatic changes to the user’s mood and dangerous effects on their life giving bodily functions.

Effects on Natural Dopamine Production

Over time, natural neurotransmitter production (4), especially dopamine, is disrupted in those who use opioids like heroin. With heroin causing the body to release these neurotransmitters, the naturally occurring systems adapt for this change and begin to depend on this process. Once the substance use has stopped, the brain of the user is not equipped with regulating this neurotransmitter on its own. This causes the person who stopped using to fluctuate between emotional lows and high as their body fights to learn how to regulate itself again.

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Physical & Physiological Changes to the Brain

As heroin use continues for an extended period of time, measurable changes to the brain occur along with notable changes in the mood and hormone levels of the person using.

Deterioration of Brain Matter

Studies have shown (4) that extended periods of heroin use have led to the deterioration of the brain’s white matter. This part of the brain is linked to decision making, ability to regulate behavior, and reaction to stress and stressful situations.

Hormonal Effects

Extended use of heroin has also been related to limiting (5) luteinizing hormone (LH) and testosterone (T) levels in the user. These chemicals are directly responsible for the sexual wellbeing and function of both males and females.

Heroin’s Influence on Mental Function

Moments after (6) heroin is introduced to the body, the user will begin to feel the rush of euphoria due to the brain’s release of dopamine neurotransmitters. This surge will vary greatly depending on factors like the quality of the heroin and the route of administration. After the initial effect, the person using will become drowsy for hours after the use with mental functioning becoming extremely cloudy.

Interactions With Other Systems in the Body

The brain is the regulatory center for all bodily functions, so it is no surprise that a substance like heroin will have a far reaching impact on each system.

Heart Rate

One of the most dangerous effects that heroin will have on the body is the suppression of heart rate (7). With the effect that it has on the body’s natural serotonin production in combination with disruption of the body’s regulatory cycles, heart rate decreases sometimes dramatically. If heart rate stays at low levels for an extended period of time, necessary oxygen does not get transported throughout the body leading to a host of secondary health concerns.

Blocking of Pain Passages

Another potentially dangerous unintended consequence of heroin use are the results from blocking pain passages. Though this is often the effect that many heroin users seek, an indirect result from blocking these passages is the inability to feel pain when injury occurs. Not feeling pain when it is necessary may delay seeking out necessary medical care leading to further damage.

Can Heroin Cause Permanent Brain Damage?

As breathing and heartbeat functions (7) are suppressed with heroin use, this limits the amount of oxygen being dispersed throughout the body and, most importantly, the brain. Lack of oxygen to the brain is a condition known as Cerebral hypoxia. In its mild forms Cerebral hypoxia is responsible for poor judgment and uncoordinated movements. As lack of oxygen continues unconsciousness and unresponsiveness occur.

Slowed Breathing Can Cause Comas

In its most extreme forms Cerebral hypoxia can lead to extended periods of unconsciousness known as comas. The body continues to attempt to regain and repair itself to the point that the user is able to wake up.

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Seeking Treatment For Heroin Addiction

Heroin affects every part of the brain and body. As it interacts with the brain it causes an imbalance in neurotransmitters leading to a short intense sensation followed by an extended period of time recovering. As it interacts with the body it suppresses the central nervous system often leading to long term health problems.

If you or someone you know finds themselves in this cycle of addiction, there is hope. Guardian Recovery has made itself available to address the specific needs of those struggling with heroin use disorder. Our trained team of medical and clinical professionals are highly skilled in ensuring the best quality of care is provided to every individual that comes to us for help. Call today and have one of our admissions professionals conduct a free, no obligation, insurance check for you to help guide you towards the right treatment option for you or someone you care about. Recovery can begin today.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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