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Prescription opioids in the body and in the brain

Prescription opioids in the body and in the brain

Prescription opioids (OxyContin, Vicodin, etc.), afford the user relief from chronic and often debilitating pain when taken as prescribed. But according to one report, nearly 1 in 3 opioid prescriptions is being abused.

Prescription opioids, like all opioids, are addictive. The American Society of Addictive Medicine notes that in 2014, roughly 2 million Americans aged 12 and older had a substance abuse disorder involving prescription opioids. Teenagers rarely have chronic or debilitating pain. They use and often become addicted because of the euphoria the drugs produce. This pleasure comes at a terrible price.

Physical effects of opioid abuse

Donald Teater, M.D., is the medical advisor to the National Safety Council. In his white paper “The Psychological and Physical Effects of Pain Medications,” Teater provides a top-to-bottom analysis of what opioids do to the body. Here are a few of the side effects of prescription opioids:

1. Gastrointestinal. Teater notes opioids slow down the peristaltic action of the intestines, resulting in constipation for 40 to 90 percent of individuals who take them. Slowed peristaltic action can cause nausea and vomiting. The chemical properties of the drugs can also cause nausea and vomiting. Roughly a quarter of the people who take opioid pain medications have these side effects. Gastrointestinal bleeding commonly occurs, particularly in the senior population.

2. Respiratory. Opioids slow down breathing. Carbon dioxide levels increase, causing the brain to increase the respiratory rate. A person who overdoses is at risk for suffocation because opioids interrupt the carbon dioxide loop that allows an unconscious individual to keep breathing. Absence of this loop leads to labored breathing. The greater the amount of opioids ingested, the greater the risk the individual will stop breathing.

3. Hypogonadism. Gonadotropin releasing hormone (GNRH) stimulates the production of estrogen and testosterone (sex hormones). Opioids decrease the production of GNRH. Over half of individuals on chronic opioid therapy have low levels of these sex hormones. In addition to lowered libido (as if that weren’t enough), these individuals are at risk for infertility, impotence, compression fractures, osteoporosis, menstrual irregularities and alteration of gender role.

Neurological consequences of opioid abuse

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics (summarized on Medscape) found a higher risk for dementia and cognitive deficits in individuals 65 and older who regularly use opioids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) compared to their peers who took low or no dosages of these medications.

The Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC) lists the following neurological progression of opioid dependence:

1. A normal functioning brain, unimpaired by opioids, regulates billions of neurons in the body. Opioids suppress these neurons, including the ones responsible for distributing noradrenaline or norepinephrine. These neurons adapt by increasing their activity as a means of regaining the body’s homeostasis lost to opioids.

2. The increased activity leads to more noradrenaline being released and the individual feels normal.

3. The opioid receptors in the brain become less responsive due to the increased activity. This leads to tolerance. The user must increase the opioid to achieve the desired effect.

4. Less responsive opioid receptors results in the areas of the brain called the ventral tegmental area, and the nucleus accumbens do not activate normally. This leads to a reduction in the release of dopamine.

5. Chasing the high is the phrase associated with increased intake of dopamine to achieve the same level of euphoria before the user’s opioid receptors developed tolerance.

Prescription opioids in the body and in the brain

Sovereign Health Group interrupts this cycle by treating the physical effects of drug dependence. The first stage in treatment is the process of safely separating the patient from his or her physical addiction. We do this through nutritionally assisted detox (NAD). Unlike tradition detox, NAD uses minerals, nutrients and vitamins to mitigate withdrawal symptoms and safely return the individual to homeostasis. For more information about NAD and other Sovereign programs, call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author:

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at

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