What Opioids Do to Your Brain

Aug 08, 2023
What Opioids Do to Your Brain
Most people know that opioids are highly addictive, but many don’t understand how these drugs affect the brain. Here, learn about critical changes underlying opioid addiction and how we can help you break the cycle and stay healthy.

More than 80,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2021, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marking a sharp increase from previous years. In fact, mounting cases of opioid abuse and overdose prompted the federal government to declare the opioid epidemic a national health emergency in 2017, a designation that still stands.

Of course, drug addiction and overdose fatalities existed long before opioids came on the scene. But the way opioids act on the brain makes them especially addictive, and overcoming addiction can be especially difficult without the right medical support in place.

Betsy Serrano, PMHNP, and the team at Cora Health Solutions are leading providers of addiction support and treatment for patients in the Biltmore area of Phoenix, Arizona. In this post, learn how opioids affect your brain and how our team can help you break the cycle of opioid abuse.

Opioids and your brain

Opioids work by binding to special proteins found in and on the surface of cells. These receptors are designed to react when they come in contact with the natural opioid substances produced by your body. Endorphins are one of the most well-known of these natural opioids, producing the “runner’s high” many of us have heard of.

When opioid medications bind with these cells, they also produce a “high” or euphoric effect, although much stronger than the effects produced by natural opioids. Once an opioid drug binds with a receptor, it’s no longer available to bind with natural receptors. Instead, your brain adjusts to the more powerful effects of the opioid drug, creating a potent psychological reward system that forms the basis of addiction.


Now, the brain craves the more potent opioid in order to experience the powerful euphoric effects. Over time, the brain develops a tolerance to synthetic opioids, which means we need more and more of the drug in order to experience the same pleasurable effects. This is when physical dependence emerges, and the cycle of addiction truly takes hold.

Dependence and addiction

As opioid use increases, the body responds by producing less of the natural endorphins we normally rely on. The brain is now reliant on synthetic opioids instead. Attempting to quit at this stage results in physical symptoms like nausea, anxiety, sweating, and even pain, along with the psychological effects of withdrawal.

Opioids essentially “rewire” the brain’s reward system, fostering both a psychological need and a physical dependence on the drugs. This reward system causes many of the addictive behaviors associated with opioid abuse, including furtive behaviors and problems with work, relationships, and finances. Eventually, the entire focus of life is on obtaining drugs to satisfy cravings.

Opioids don’t just act on the pleasure centers of your brain. They also affect the area of your brain that’s responsible for respiration. In fact, they exert powerful depressive qualities, and over time, they can affect your respiration rate. At high doses, opioids can slow breathing dramatically, leading to oxygen depletion, respiratory failure, and death.

Real help for opioid addiction

Opioids exert a powerful influence over your brain, making it far more difficult to quit. Fortunately, medical solutions can help. Betsy Serrano and her team work closely with individual patients to tailor every treatment plan to the unique needs of the individual patient, helping break the cycle of addiction and restore a healthy lifestyle. 

To learn more about our addiction treatment plans and how they can help you, call 602-907-5300 or book an appointment online with Cora Health Solutions today.