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The Science Behind Opiate Withdrawal


I speak about opiate addiction daily and the effects it has in our lives. It can take a normal functioning human being and destroy their life if not kill them in a matter of months. Priorities change dramatically and the mood of the abuser becomes erratic and hard to comprehend. Most people just say "it's because of the drugs they use", and they are 100% correct.  The effects of abusing opiates changes the way the brain functions and causes unstable erratic behavior.

Speaking with thousands of individuals a year, I hear daily about the symptoms that an opiate abusers go through. At the same time I hear from the abuser's family and friends about what they witness as far as physical and mental effects. Most people going through withdrawal are unaware of what is causing their symptoms and why they feel full of anxiety and depression. They know it is because they abused opiates and it effected their body, but they don't really understand the science behind it.  I think the facts really provide incite as to why they are feeling how they do. In most cases, educating themselves on what their body is going through can help in the process of healing by understanding what they are going through.

Being a recovering opiate addict myself, I wanted to know why I felt the way I did while I was in early recovery. I wanted to know how long I was going to feel the way I did and what to expect in the future. It can be discouraging to feel good on day 6 of recovery but then feel terrible on day 7. I began from the start researching scientific studies on opiate dependence/addiction and effects it had on the brain and body.

Many reactions in the brain cause withdrawal to the body. One of the main parts of the brain that affect withdrawal is located at the base of the brain called the locus coeruleus. Neurons in the locus coeruleus produce the chemical noradrenaline. Noradrenaline is then distributed to other parts of the brain where it stimulates breathing, wakefulness, blood pressure, and general alertness. When opioid molecules (drugs) link to specialized proteins, called mu opioid receptors, on the surfaces of opiate-sensitive neurons (brain cells) in the locus coeruleus, they suppress the release of noradrenaline. This results in drowsiness, slowed respiration, low blood pressure which are familiar effects of opiate use. With repeated use and exposure to opiates, the locus coeruleus brain cells adjust by increasing their activity. When opiates are abused, their suppressive impact offsets the heightened activity and the result is having roughly a normal amount of noradrenaline released and the abuser feels normal. But what happens when opiates are not present, withdrawal kicks in.  When opiates are not present to suppress the locus coeruleus brain cells increased activity, the brain cells release excessive amounts of noradrenaline which causes some very uncomfortable side effects. Some of these side effects include extreme anxiety, muscle cramps, diarrhea and an over all uncomfortable jittery feeling.  Education is key to understanding addiction, and opiate abuse.  If you or someone you know is addicted to opiates, please speak to a medical professional.


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