Is Heroin a Stimulant?

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Heroin is a powerful drug that can lead to dependency, overdose, and death. Because people feel an intense high immediately, it creates a desire to have more. In 2020, more than 13,000 people died from an overdose involving heroin in the United States. This equals more than four deaths for every 100,000 Americans. The number of heroin overdose deaths was seven times higher in 2020 than in 1999.

Heroin use has significant short and long-term effects. Once heroin enters the brain, it is converted to morphine. People who use heroin typically report feeling a surge of pleasurable sensations. With heroin, the rush is accompanied by warm skin flushing, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the arms and legs. Nausea, vomiting, and severe itching may also occur. After the initial effects, users will usually be drowsy for several hours; mental function is clouded; heart function slows; and breathing is slowed, sometimes enough to be life-threatening. Slowed breathing can also lead to coma and permanent brain damage.

Because the primary effect of heroin is slowing down the central nervous system, heroin is known to be a depressant, not a stimulant.

Guardian Recovery will examine how heroin is a depressant, the difference between stimulants and depressants, and how you can seek treatment for yourself or someone you love who has a heroin use disorder.

If you or someone you love has a heroin use disorder, Guardian Recovery is available to help. We are dedicated to providing the most comprehensive and individualized medically monitored detox program. To learn more about our programs, contact us today.

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What Is a Stimulant?

Stimulants are a class of drugs that speed up messages traveling between the brain and body. They can make a person more awake, alert, confident, or energetic.

Examples of stimulants include caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine. Large doses can cause over-stimulation, resulting in anxiety, panic, seizures, headaches, stomach cramps, aggression, and paranoia. Long-term use of strong stimulants can have adverse effects.

A well-known drug that is a stimulant is cocaine. Cocaine use has significant short and long-term effects. Taking small amounts of cocaine makes the user feel alert, awake, more talkative, and confident. They might experience a reduced appetite and need for sleep.

The long-term effects of chronic cocaine use can be severe. Adverse effects include anxiety, panic attacks, reduced blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract, significant weight loss, malnourishment, permanent damage to the heart and cardiovascular system, increased risk of stroke, permanent damage to the nasal passageways, and a sharp decline in cognitive functioning.

How Do Stimulants Interact With the Brain?

Stimulants interact with the brain in a few different ways. One way affects how a person’s brain processes information, such as memory, learning, and cognitive processing. The other way is by impacting how the brain responds to addiction, such as by increasing cravings.

Stimulants impact the brain’s reward center by flooding the brain with dopamine. This is the neurotransmitter related to people’s euphoric high when using stimulants like cocaine. Too much dopamine damages the way the brain and body function. It is also linked with competitiveness, aggression, and poor impulse control.

Additionally, stimulants change the way the brain adapts to stress. Stress is what contributes to relapse with cocaine use, and many times, people with cocaine use disorders also have a comorbidity of post-traumatic stress disorder. Cocaine elevates stress hormones in the brain and also leads to dependence as the brain seeks out cocaine when triggered by stressors in the environment.

Side Effects of Taking Stimulants

Short-term effects of cocaine use include restricted blood vessels, dilated pupils, increased body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Large amounts of cocaine can lead to erratic or even violent behavior. Additionally, a person may experience tremors and muscle twitching.

Severe medical complications can occur with stimulant use. Examples include cardiovascular effects, headaches, seizures, strokes, and coma. In rare instances, sudden or unexpected death can occur.

Stimulants have substantial effects on the heart and cardiovascular system. Specifically, cocaine use is linked with an increased risk of stroke.

The brain also is negatively impacted by long-term stimulant use. Examples include Parkinson’s disease and cognitive impairments of memory, judgment, impulse, and motor functioning.

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How Does Heroin Affect the Brain & Body as a Depressant?

Once heroin enters the brain, it is converted to morphine. People who use heroin typically report feeling a surge of pleasurable sensations. With heroin, the rush is accompanied by warm skin flushing, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the arms and legs. Nausea, vomiting, and severe itching may also occur.

After the initial effects, users will usually be drowsy for several hours; mental function is clouded; heart function slows; and breathing is slowed, sometimes enough to be life-threatening. Slowed breathing can also lead to coma and permanent brain damage.

Additionally, heroin impacts the brain in specific ways. Here are the following ways heroin affects the brain and nervous system function.

How Heroin Affects Brain & Nervous System:

  • Heroin depresses breathing and heart rate.
  • Heroin reinforces drug-taking behavior by altering activity in the limbic system, which controls emotions.
  • Heroin can block pain messages transmitted through the spinal cord from the body.

Depressants & the Brain

Central nervous system depressants act on the brain by increasing the activity of GABA, a neurotransmitter that slows brain activity. People who use depressants such as alcohol, heroin, and benzodiazepines feel sleepy and uncoordinated at first. They can also have poor concentration, confusion, lowered blood pressure, and slowed breathing.

How Heroin Affects the Central Nervous System

When a person takes a drug such as morphine or heroin, the drug enters the central nervous system in the brain and binds to receptors responsible for pain and pleasure. When binding to the pain pathway, opioids provide pain relief. However, when binding to the reward pathway, heroin causes euphoria and releases a key neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Dopamine signals the neurons of the body to create a pleasurable feeling or “high.” The brain is naturally wired to repeat processes that trigger the reward pathway. Therefore, this may lead to addiction.

Other Known Common Depressants

Depressants induce sleep, relieve anxiety and muscle spasms, and prevent seizures. Common depressants include alcohol and benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax. Finally, Quaaludes used to be widely used and is a well-known depressant drug.

Opioids, Depression, & Mood Disorders

Research has found that people abusing opioids often have a comorbidity of depression. Left untreated, depressive symptoms can make recovery even more difficult.

The relationship between opioid abuse and depression is strongly correlated. Opioid use has been linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders.

But some research suggests that simply using prescription opioids can put one at higher risk for depression. Researchers found that 10% of over 100,000 patients prescribed opioids developed depression after using the medications for over a month. These patients were taking the drug for ailments such as back pain, headaches, and arthritis and had not received a diagnosis of depression before treatment.

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At Guardian Recovery, we remain dedicated to providing our clients with a comprehensive program of heroin detox — one that focuses on much more than physical stabilization. In addition to emphasizing physical recovery, we tackle mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. While we prioritize a safe and pain-free cocaine withdrawal, we offer individualgroup, and family therapy sessions, case management services, relapse prevention training, and aftercare planning.

Contact us today if you or your loved one is ready to begin an entirely new way of life and commit to long-term recovery. As soon as you call, we start developing a plan of action that begins with an initial pre-assessment. This assessment helps us determine which level of care is the most appropriate for each unique case. We identify potential coverage options if our medically monitored detox program is a good fit. We work closely with most major regional and national insurance providers. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation insurance benefit check.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/deaths/heroin/index.html#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20heroin%2Dinvolved%20overdose,deaths%20for%20every%20100%2C000%20Americans.
  2. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-immediate-short-term-effects-heroin-use
  3. https://adf.org.au/drug-facts/stimulants/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK576548/
  5. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/how-does-cocaine-produce-its-effects
  6. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use
  7. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-cns-depressants#:~:text=Prescription%20CNS%20depressants%20act%20on,blood%20pressure%2C%20and%20slowed%20breathing.
  8. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Depressants-2020.pdf
  9. https://publichealth.jhu.edu/2011/martins-opioids
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21999943/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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