So, let’s take a look at what heroin does to the body. Also known as smack, skag, horse, gear and brown, heroin has a lengthy history.
The drug has its roots so to speak, in the opium poppy. Evidence of the cultivation of these poppies has been found as far back as Neolithic times, more than 6,000 years ago. Poppies were slit open and their opium containing sap collected and consumed. It was around 1810 that the drug morphine was first extracted from the resin of the opium poppy.
Morphine has incredible pain killing effects, producing a state of numbness and euphoria that made it the go-to drug for surgery.
At the time, little was known about how addictive morphine could be, and it was used so liberally during the American Civil War that it left tens of thousands of soldiers hopelessly addicted and dependent on the drug. In response to this, heroin made its grand entrance.
Derived from morphine by German scientists, it was marketed at the time as a new wonder drug. A safe and nonaddictive alternative to morphine, It could be used to treat everything from headaches and colds to depression and even old age. Decades of unregulated and legal over the counter distribution, even free samples being sent in the post led to hundreds of thousands of heroin addicts worldwide.
Heroin was severely restricted under the Geneva Convention in 1925 and in the UK, it’s now a Class A illegal drug, but that doesn’t deter some from seeking its mood and mind-altering effects. So, how does it work?
What happens to the brain when you take heroin?
When injected or smoked, the active chemical compound in heroin, diamorphine reaches the brain quickly via the blood. Once in the brain, enzymes convert it to morphine, and that begins to alter the balance of the natural chemicals in the nervous system
In the brain, you’ll find billions of neurons responsible for relaying information and between them, billions of connections called synapses. At the synapses, the heroin derived morphine binds to specific opioid receptors. That triggers the release of dopamine, one of your so-called feel-good hormones. As more and more heroin reaches the brain it tricks it into releasing more and more dopamine; users experience something that’s often described as a rush of euphoria.
What follows the euphoria is much more dangerous and damaging. Let’s not forget that diamorphine and morphine are primarily painkillers, and that’s in part because of their slowing effects on the nervous system. After the initial rush of dopamine euphoria, heroin users will begin to feel drowsy. They’ll be unable to think clearly, and their heart rate and breathing rate will be severely slowed down.
Just how dangerous is using heroin?
The slowing down of breathing and heart rate is what makes heroin so dangerous, without enough oxygen getting into the blood and the brain, users risk slipping into a coma and even permanent brain damage. That lethargy can last for several hours depending on the dose. Just like its predecessor morphine, heroin is unbelievably addictive. Even after using it once, you can build up both tolerance and physical dependence that can change your brain and your behaviour forever.
Tolerance is when the intensity of the drug’s effects decreases each time it’s taken, meaning users need to take more to achieve the same high meaning that the slowing effects are more significant and longer lasting, putting users at an increased risk.
Physical dependence is where the body adapts to having the drug within it, and whenever users don’t have heroin in their system, they can experience truly horrible withdrawal symptoms like diarrhoea, vomiting, muscle pain, restlessness and insomnia.
How easy is it to get addicted?
It is extremely easy to become addicted to heroin, and once this happens – seeking and taking more of the drug can become your sole purpose in life. Many addicts become homeless, and estranged from friends & family due to their obsessive need to source and take the drug at any cost. Evidence also shows that the continued presence of the heroin in the brain can fundamentally change its structure and function, and those changes are not easily reversed.
What began as an innocent experiment in pain relief decades ago, still affects more than 17 million people worldwide, and its use is still on the rise, with heroin still topping the charts for drug-related deaths and health problems.