Addictive substances alter the brain’s motivation, pleasure, and reward centers in both structure and function. The human brain is designed to recall experiences that induce pleasurable feelings and to motivate us to re-engage in behaviors that are associated with them.
Heroin is widely considered by experts to be the most addictive drug in the world. The reason why heroin is so addictive is partially due to the manner in which people use it—for example, injecting heroin has a much higher potential for addiction, than, say, taking a heroin-laced pill would. It is also a very potent drug, relatively inexpensive, and very accessible. Finally, the withdrawal symptoms that emerge when a person tries to quit can be harrowing, and often severe enough to drive a person to re-engage in the drug’s use.
How Heroin Alters Brain Chemistry
When an individual uses heroin, the drug rapidly enters the bloodstream and heads straight to the brain and impacts the regions of the brain responsible for pleasure, reward, depression, anxiety, and emotions. That’s why people who use heroin report feeling peaceful and relaxed. They also stop feeling anxious, troubled, and depressed.
So what happens here is this—the brain begins to associate this highly pleasant effect with the use of heroin and urges the person to do it again. Over time, repeated use continues to enforce this, and the brain becomes highly motivated to use. This is essentially the same thing that eating does. However, unlike with heroin use, eating is necessary to survive, and, in general, is nowhere near as problematic.
With extended use, heroin starts to severely disrupt areas in the brain responsible for judgment and self-control. The brain is essentially hijacked by heroin at this point and tricked into believing that heroin use is a positive thing. Cravings for the drug become very intense, and the brain and body become unable to function normally without its presence. This condition is also known as chemical dependence and is why withdrawal symptoms occur when the person tries to quit using.
How Method of Administration Matters
Although potency varies, most opiates and opioids affect the brain pretty much the same way. But unlike a medication such as hydrocodone, users tend to administer heroin in a way that is especially likely to lead to addiction. Smoking and snorting heroin are common, and injection is probably the preferred method of abuse. All of these means to ingest heroin have more immediate, more intense effects than oral consumption.
For this reason, many prescription opioids are designed using abuse-deterrent formulas that make the pills difficult to crush or melt. When a pill is consumed orally, it is processed by the stomach and liver, absorbed into the bloodstream much more slowly, and the effects emerge over time.
But smoking, snorting, or injecting bypasses this process and, instead, the entire amount of drug goes straight to the brain. Addiction is more likely to occur when the brain receives the drug in this way. Heroin is rarely consumed orally, so it’s nearly always used in these high-risk ways. And it’s no coincidence that it is—people who use heroin seek out very intense effects that are often no longer satisfied with less potent drugs like oxycodone.
Heroin Is Easily Accessible
Prescription opioids are often much more expensive and more difficult to obtain than heroin. In fact, many people who become dependent on prescription opioids switch to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to access.
Furthermore, heroin’s availability has dramatically increased in the last few years, in response to the national opioid epidemic that began with the over-prescribing of painkillers such as oxycodone. To make matters worse, illicit fentanyl has made its way into the heroin market. Fentanyl is up to 50 times more potent than heroin itself, and even less expensive to produce and procure.
Withdrawal Hinders Attempts to Quit Using
People who become dependent on heroin will use the drug to avoid uncomfortable and painful withdrawal symptoms. At this point, they are no longer using the drug merely to get high, and heroin has actually become essential to function without undergoing days of physical and mental torment.
Many other substances, such as alcohol and cocaine, will result in withdrawal symptoms. Heroin withdrawal is not generally life-threatening but is notorious for being particularly unpleasant and painful, and can last longer than other drugs such as cocaine and meth.
Few people are physically and mentally capable of undergoing heroin withdrawal without medical treatment unless they are forced to, such as if they are unable to access the drug for some reason. And, unfortunately, without treatment, there is a high likelihood that they will engage in behaviors such as stealing or prostitution to get money to buy heroin, and there may be no limit to what they will do to get it.
How Addictive Is Heroin?
A drug’s potential for abuse and addiction is based on many factors, but many researchers and experts agree that heroin is one of the most addictive substances, possibly only surpassed by other injectable forms of opioids, such as fentanyl or krokodil. These drugs all have a profound impact on the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and are likely to lead to both chemical and psychological dependence. And, next to alcohol, heroin probably has the highest risk of psychical and social harm.
As noted, physical dependence refers to adaptive changes in the brain that trigger withdrawal symptoms when the drug isn’t present. Psychological dependence refers to having a severe compulsion to use, and a loss of judgment when it comes to that use. The person will do anything they can to obtain and use the drugs and will do so to their own personal detriment and the detriment of others. Any prior morals that they had regarding self-harm or harm to loved ones will fall by the wayside in place of drug use.
How Long Does It Take to Develop an Addiction?
Contrary to what some people believe, most heroin users don’t become addicted after one dose. However, one dose may be enough to encourage future abuse, and this can eventually escalate into a full-blown addiction. Other factors are involved, such as drug purity, potency, and level of use, but generally speaking, it is possible to get addicted to heroin in just a few days. By comparison, almost no one becomes dependent upon alcohol or oral painkillers that fast.
Moreover, one use is not likely to induce cravings or an emotional connection to the drug, but heroin’s highly pleasant effects often motivate people to use it again. Ever time they do this, it increases the risk that chemical dependence and, ultimately, addiction will develop.
Another component of heroin use and addiction is the building of tolerance. Tolerance refers to how the brain has a propensity to reduce the effects of substances over time. When this occurs, the person has to use more heroin to achieve the desired effect, and, at some point, they may not even feel much of a high. Unfortunately, individuals who develop a high tolerance for heroin can now turn to fentanyl, a drug that is even more addictive and deadly.
Getting Help for Heroin Addiction
Heroin abuse and addiction are potentially life-threatening issues that can destroy a person’s physical and mental health, and cause an array of problems ranging from social isolation to legal and financial difficulties. Fortunately, heroin addiction is very treatable, and many people have beat it. Recovery in Tune offers integrated, customized programs, in outpatient and partial hospitalization formats, designed to treat all forms of addiction to a wide variety of substances.
If you are struggling with heroin addiction, we urge you to contact us today to discover how we can help you reclaim the life, health, and emotional well-being you deserve!