One of the most notorious classes of drugs is certainly opiates. Compared to other classes of drugs like stimulants and hallucinogens, opiates have remained a major problem on a large scale. For this reason, it’s important to be knowledgeable about opiates, including the history of opiates, the effects of opiate abuse and withdrawal, and how opiate addiction is treated.
What Are Opiates?
There are a variety of mind-altering substances, but some have become more notorious and infamous than others, such as opiates. Of course, this is a term that we’ve heard a lot, especially in recent years as the abuse of prescription painkillers and heroin have reached epidemic-level proportions; however, there’s a lot of confusion regarding opiates, so it’s important to be aware of what opiates are and how they differ from other drugs with which they’re often confused.
By definition, the term “opiate” is used to denote a naturally-occurring substance that’s found in and derived from the opium poppy. In fact, most painkillers are derived to some extent from the opium that’s obtained from the opium poppy and that lends the opiate classification its name.
If we look back on the history of opium and opiates, opium was used for medicinal and even spiritual purposes in Asia hundreds and possibly even thousands of years ago. Eventually, users began to indulge in opium for recreational purposes and personal enjoyment, largely because of the way that opium affects the brain. Specifically, the use of opium inhibited pain receptors and readily bonded with certain receptors in the brain that either minimized or eliminated physical pain. Meanwhile, opium would trigger a flood of certain hormones and neurochemicals in the brain, many of which have come to be associated with the brain’s pleasure and reward centers; in other words, the use of opium-induced euphoria, which is why the drug quickly spread across Asia and, eventually, to North America.
Soon enough, we began to see other substances being derived from opium, many of which would come to be used for medicinal purposes in Western medicine. Initially, we saw some of these drugs used as cough medicines before they started being used to treat pain, particularly pain that was related to surgical procedures. By the mid-twentieth century, these drugs were being prescribed to individuals who suffered from chronic pain, resulting in growing number of people abusing these drugs and becoming addicted to them.
Although the term “opiate” is being used less and less today, the consensus seems to be that opiates are drugs containing naturally-occurring alkaloids that are derived from the opium poppy. The most well-known opiates include morphine, thebaine, and codeine, which are used to create synthetic and semisynthetic compounds such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, oxymorphone, and numerous others; both opiates and the synthetic derivatives made from them make up a larger class of drugs known as opioids.
Opiate Addiction and Withdrawal
When an individual continues to abuse opiates over a period of time, or even uses them as directed for a long period of time, he or she is likely to become dependent on opiates, which equates to addiction. Basically, this means that the individual’s body has become accustomed to the frequent consumption of opiates and the drugs’ subsequent effects on the brain.
The consumption of an opiate results in the drug’s opiate compounds bonding with certain receptors in the brain. As mentioned previously, the drug bonding with these receptors is what allows them to dampen physical pain, but the drugs also cause a burst of neurochemicals and hormones. Some of these neurochemicals include dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which are chemicals that are frequently associated with the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. As such, the overall effect is that the individual experiences a rush of euphoria, which is the effect that causes individuals who abuse opiates to continue to abuse these drugs again and again and again. In effect, they are essentially “chasing” the experience of the euphoria, which happens to become less and less pronounced as the drug continues to be abused over time.
Due to physical dependence on opiates, an individual will experience negative side effects when he or she is unable to obtain or consume opiates. These symptoms are referred to as opiate withdrawal. Although not usually considered to be as dangerous as other forms of withdrawal — i.e., alcohol withdrawal and benzodiazepine withdrawal — opiate withdrawal symptoms can range from unpleasant to quite discomforting. Many of the effects most commonly associated with opiate withdrawal include sweating, physical discomfort in the limbs and joints, lethargy, nausea and/or diarrhea, lightheadedness, anxiety, frequent yawning, watery eyes, insomnia, and reduced cognition. For the most part, opiate withdrawal isn’t considered a life-threatening condition, but the intensity of the withdrawal effects can be a strong incentive to continue using opiates.