Opiates are chemicals that are naturally produced in the opium poppy plant. Opiates can be directly harvested from these plants. Opiates include opium, morphine, codeine, heroin, and thebaine. Opioids are drugs that are either completely synthesized in a laboratory (synthetic) or are drugs that are synthesized in the laboratory using one of the opiates (semi-synthetic), as listed above. The terms tend to be used interchangeably by laypeople and professionals alike. However, in recent times, the term opioid has been used to incorporate both opiates and opioids, to avoid confusion. For this article, the term opiates will be used to refer to all opiates and opioids.

What is known is that the use of opium dates back to at least 5,000 B.C. At that time, it seems that opium was used for pain relief, anesthesia, rituals and for recreational purposes. It was used for pain relief, until it was replaced by morphine around the early 1800s. Archeological evidence of opiate addiction dates back 1,000s of years.

Fast forward to today’s modern world. Opiate addiction is rampant and it a national health crisis. Thus far, all attempts, private and public, to curb progression of its incidence have not proven to be effective.

Opiate Overdose Deaths

There were more than 20,000 known opiate overdose deaths caused by prescription pain killers and more than 12,000 heroin overdose deaths in 2015. In fact, total drug overdose deaths total at least 50,000 and are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States.

These sobering facts have not subdued the opiate addiction epidemic. The wide-availability of opiates, their potent euphorigenic (creating euphoria, or a sense well-being) properties, and their ability to hijack the brain’s reward system, creating addiction, are all part of the reason opiate addiction has become a crisis.

But, there is more. The society in the U.S. is power-driven, success obsessed, and phenomenally stressful. Remember, opiates have been widely-available in the modern world since the 1800s, but opiate addiction did not become an epidemic until this decade. In the modern world, we are technologically driven, information overloaded, and expected to succeed at whatever one tries. The lack of strong family and community units is also likely a factor. It is common for families to separate and for U.S. citizens to often move from community to community, without ever setting up roots. The inability to handle stress, and the need to seek ever-increasing levels of bliss and excitement have fueled the opiate addiction epidemic beyond anything that would have been predicted.

Opiate addiction can occur with any opiate/opioid, when used in sufficient quantities, for a long-enough of time. There is a difference between chemical dependence and addiction. Chemical dependence can occur in the absence of addiction. When one is chemically dependent, they need the substance to prevent the onset of withdrawal. For example, a cancer patient who routinely takes opiates will suffer withdrawal if the medication is abruptly stopped. But, they may not have the hallmark signs of addiction.

Signs of Opiate Addiction

  1. Taking more of the drug than prescribed or taking it more often than needed
  2. Hiding drug use
  3. Manipulation and secrecy
  4. Social, occupational, legal, financial, relationship and other problems
  5. Emotional problems related to the use


When one suffers from addiction, they may or may not be chemically dependent, but will have the symptoms listed above. Either way, when one is chemically dependent, with or without addiction, they will need to be detoxified, which is typically carried out in an inpatient or residential drug detox center.

Opiate Addiction Effects

The brain naturally produces opiates as neurotransmitters, which are called endogenous opioids. These critical neurotransmitters help regulate our response to pain, hunger, emotional control, and other functions. Because endogenous opioids also regulate mood, their relationship to a sense of well-being is hijacked when on becomes addicted. External opiates replace and exceed what is naturally produced by the body. So, instead of feeling well after eating a bowl of ice cream, this effect is not only simulated when one uses, let us say heroin, for example, but it is markedly heightened.

Since the brain wants to know that the body is taking care of itself, it eventually demands external opiates to not only “feel normal”, but also because the brain will seek the drugs as if it were a life or death situation.

Opiate Addiction Treatment

Since all opiates/opioids act in a similar fashion, the use of any opiate can lead to an opiate addiction. There is treatment available for those who are addicted to opiates; however, the person must be willing to follow a rigorous program of recovery after primary drug and alcohol treatment is completed to prevent a relapse. Sometimes this necessitates significant lifestyle changes that may be difficult to accept initially. But, these changes can prevent a relapse and potentially be life-saving.

The National Addiction Institute is invested in helping those in need find resources to accommodate treatment for any addiction, including opiate addiction. We can be reached at 844-889-8140.

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