Opiates have an intense effect on the brain. The are engineered to make you feel really good and they do this so well that within a short time of using, it becomes very difficult to feel "normal" without the drug. This downward spiral is reversible. The brain can heal. But, it's not easy and I've found when people understand how opiates work in their brains, they are better able to take their recovery in new directions.
The Brain's Natural Morphine
We are each born with a molecule that is exactly the same as morphine and it goes to specific places in our brains called opioid receptors.
It stimulates those sites and does three things:
- Lift your mood. If you are under stress, it will help you feel better.
- Help you feel motivated. To get up, go to your job, take care of your kids, etc.
- Relieve pain. When you get an injury, your brain pumps out this chemical to help us feel better.
Evolutionarily, when we were running through the jungle being chased by a tiger, these chemicals helped us keep running so we could get out of danger.
Natural Go and Stop Systems
Our natural endorphins are produced during exercise, excitement, pain, eating spicy food, orgasm and feeling love. The release of endorphins also triggers release of dopamine which is the main chemical of our brain’s reward system. Dopamine functions as a “go” system to help us pursue things necessary for our survival.
We also have a “stop” system located in the front of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, which helps us weigh the consequences of our impulses. In addiction, the brain’s “go” system acts on its own and the "stop" system isn’t able to put the brakes on at all.
What Opiates Do to the Brain
All drugs that are addictive, including cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol and tobacco, activate the dopamine pathway which gives the brain a huge rush of the pleasure chemicals. Opiates (from heroin to pain medications such as Vicodin, Norco or Oxycontin) are way more stimulating than your natural endorphins. This is what makes them addictive.
As a result of using opiates or other drugs, your brain stops producing natural endorphins. It sees that you have plenty of those molecules in your brain. Within only 6 to 12 months of using, the cells that produced your natural brain chemicals shrink up and die or go offline.
What happens when I stop using opiates?
When you try to stop using opiates, your natural chemical system can’t turn back on like a light switch. It’s been damaged and it takes time to recover. You go through acute withdrawal, which lasts five to seven days, and then a long time of what’s called “post acute withdrawal syndrome” which can last weeks to months or years on end.
During this time, people often feel depressed, with no motivation, and every bump and bruise hurts. You go from being a person who is used to having a lot of opiates on board and feeling really motivated, energized, with no down days and no pain, to not having the base level amount of endorphin that people naturally have.
This is why so many people who don’t use replacement medication such as Suboxone relapse. They can’t stand how they feel over the long period of post-acute withdrawal. We do know that your own opioid receptors can come back. It just takes time and doing the things that help your brain recover. This is what we’ll do in Recovery Superstar.
First, I know from talking with many of you personally, how far you have already come in your recovery and what you already do to take care of yourself. I acknowledge you for the courage and strength it takes to face difficult aspects of ourselves that sometimes we wish would just go away.
My goal in starting this website and the Recovery Superstar class is to help you deepen your understanding of yourself and your addiction, so you can have the life you've always dreamed of. You'll learn how your brain is different and you'll have a chance to try out some practical tools to help recalibrate your brain and maximize your long term recovery.
You'll become more skilled in understanding your triggers to use opiates and what you can do to prevent relapse. Along the way, you'll be able to get support and share your experiences with other people similar to you going through the class in an anonymous, password-protected environment. I'll be there right along with you too. I hope you’ll join us in the next class.