Addictive substances alter the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in both function and structure. The human brain is designed to fondly remember experiences that produce pleasurable feelings and motivate us to continue engaging in the behaviors associated with them.
Many experts believe that heroin is one of the most addictive substances in the world. Heroin’s addictive potential is due, in part, to how it is administered. Moreover, injecting heroin has a much higher potential for addiction than taking a heroin-laced pill. It is also a potent drug, inexpensive, and despite its illicit status, it is very accessible in many areas. Finally, the withdrawal symptoms that onset when an individual tries to quit can be harrowing, and often severe enough to compel them to re-engage in drug use.
How Heroin Impacts Brain Chemistry
When a person uses heroin, the drug enters the bloodstream rapidly and heads straight to the brain and affects brain regions responsible for reward, pleasure, depression, anxiety, and emotions. This is why people who abuse heroin report feeling relaxed and peaceful. They also stop feeling anxious and depressed.
So what happens next is that the brain begins to associate this highly sought-after effect with the use of heroin and urges the individual to do it again. Over time, repeated use will continue to enforce this, and the brain becomes increasingly motivated to use it. The same thing happens when a person eats and drinks water. However, unlike with heroin use, these staples are needed to survive, and, in general, are not as problematic.
With prolonged use, heroin starts to severely disrupt regions in the brain responsible for judgment and self-control. At this point, the brain has become hijacked by heroin more or less and tricked into thinking that heroin use is a positive thing. Cravings for the drug can become very intense, and the brain and body become unable to function normally without it. This condition is also known as physical dependence and is why withdrawal symptoms occur when the individual tries to quit using.
How Route of Administration Matters
Although potency varies, all opioids affect the brain in similar ways. Unlike prescription medications such as hydrocodone, users tend to administer heroin in a way that is especially likely to result in addiction. Snorting and smoking heroin are common, and injection is often the preferred method of abuse. All of these means to administer heroin have more immediate, intense effects than oral consumption.
For this reason, many prescription painkillers are designed with formulas that deter abuse by making the pills difficult to crush or otherwise easy with which to tamper. When a pill is ingested orally, it is first processed by the stomach and liver, absorbed into the bloodstream much more slowly, and effects manifest over time.
However, smoking, snorting, or injecting bypasses this process and, instead, the entire amount of the substance goes straight to the brain. The disease known as addiction is much more likely to develop when the brain is exposed to the drug in this way. Heroin is rarely ingested orally, so it’s almost always used in these high-risk ways. And it’s no coincidence that it is—heroin users tend to seek out very intense effects that are no longer satisfied by less potent drugs like hydrocodone or oxycodone.
Heroin Is Easily Accessible
Prescription painkillers are often more expensive and difficult to obtain than heroin. In fact, many individuals who become dependent on prescription opioids switch to heroin because it’s cheaper and more easily accessible.
Furthermore, heroin’s availability has significantly increased in recent years, in response to the national opioid crisis that began with the over-prescribing of prescription opioids such as oxycodone. Making matters worse, illicit fentanyl, a drug up to 50 times more potent than heroin, has become prevalent in the heroin market and is even less expensive to produce and obtain.
Withdrawal Undermines Attempts to Stop Using
Individuals who become dependent on heroin will use the drug to prevent uncomfortable and painful withdrawal effects. At this point, the person is no longer using the drug to get high, and heroin has actually become necessary to function without undergoing days of mental and physical torment.
The use of many other addictive substances, such as alcohol, meth, and cocaine, will lead to withdrawal symptoms. Heroin withdrawal is not in and of itself life-threatening but is notorious for being especially unpleasant and painful, and these can persist for several days or weeks.
Few individuals are physically and mentally capable of undergoing heroin withdrawal without medical treatment. Unfortunately, without treatment, there is an increased likelihood that they will engage in illicit behaviors, such as prostitution or stealing, to access heroin. There may be little or no limit to what they will do to get their hands on it.
How Addictive Is Heroin?
A drug’s potential for abuse, dependence, and addiction is based on many factors. Indeed, many experts concur that heroin is one of the most addictive substances, surpassed only by other injectable opioids, such as fentanyl. These substances all have a profound impact on the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and are likely to lead to both physical and psychological dependence. And, aside from alcohol, heroin probably has the highest risk of social harm.
As noted, physical dependence refers to changes in the brain that trigger withdrawal symptoms when the drug isn’t present. Psychological dependence refers to having a compulsion to use, and a loss of judgment when it comes to that use. The individual will do anything he or she can to obtain and use drugs and continue to do so to their detriment and that of others. Any morals that they had previously regarding self-harm or harm to loved ones will be replaced by drug use.
How Long Does It Take to Develop a Heroin Addiction?
Contrary to what some individuals believe, most heroin users don’t become dependent or addicted after one dose. However, one use may be enough to encourage further abuse, and this can eventually evolve into full-blown addiction. Other factors are involved, such as drug potency and intensity of use, but generally speaking, it is possible to get addicted to heroin after a few days of use. By comparison, most people will not become dependent upon alcohol or prescription painkillers.
Moreover, one use is not likely to result in cravings or an emotional connection to the drug, but heroin’s highly pleasant effects often drive people to use it again. Every time they do this, it increases the risk that physical dependence and addiction will develop.
Another aspect of heroin abuse and addiction is the development of tolerance. Tolerance is a term that refers to how the brain has a tendency to reduce the effects of substances over time. When this occurs, the individual has to use increasing amounts of heroin to experience the desired effects, and, at some point, they may not even feel that high. Unfortunately, people who develop a high tolerance for heroin now have fentanyl to turn to, a drug that is even more addictive and lethal.
Getting Help for Heroin Addiction
Heroin abuse and addiction are potentially life-threatening conditions that can destroy a person’s physical and mental health, and cause an array of issues ranging from social isolation to legal and financial problems. Fortunately, heroin addiction is treatable, and many people have overcome it.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery centers offer integrated, customized programs designed to treat all forms of addiction to various substances, including heroin, alcohol, cocaine, meth, and more.