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The Link Between Opioids and Mental Health: Increased Risk for Addiction

An image of many pills spilled out of bottles on a tablePeople who use opioids have a much higher incidence of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. Sometimes these mental health disorders are the result of opioid use and sometimes opioids are used to try to mask the symptoms of poor mental health. In the rush to rid the world of illicit drug use, this mental health angle is often forgotten. But for the sake of people whose lives are affected by these drugs, it's critical to investigate the link between opioids and mental health.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin as well as certain pain relievers like codeine, morphine, and oxycodone. They’re chemicals that occur naturally in nature and can also be made in a lab. These chemicals can help reduce pain levels by interacting with opioid receptors in the body and brain. For this reason, they’re often used to reduce acute pain after surgery, during cancer treatments, or in palliative care.

Opioids can be seriously addictive, leading to physical dependence in as little as 4 weeks. And quitting opioids without medical help can result in a range of severe symptoms including generalized pain, anxiety, intense cravings, chills, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, cramps, dilated pupils, restlessness, and insomnia. These symptoms can make it very difficult and even dangerous for users to quit using opioids.

Although opioids can reduce pain levels, they can also cause symptoms such as:

  • Mental confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Euphoria
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Depressed respiration at high doses

Opioid addiction is a serious problem in the western world at the moment despite efforts by police and government to reduce opioid use. And this problem is only worsened by the link between opioids and mental health issues.

How Opioids Affect the Brain

The way that opioids affect the brain is one of the most important reasons for the link between opioids and mental health. The human body naturally produces opioids, which often function like hormones. Opioid drugs bond to these natural opioid receptors in the brain and trigger chemical reactions, causing pleasure and pain relief.

There are 3 types of opioid receptors in the brain, known as delta, kappa, and mu. These are linked to mood, pain, and reward. So the effects you experience from taking opioids will depend on which type of receptor the opioid targets.

Unfortunately, overuse of opioids can negatively affect the brain. Opioids can:

  • Bond to dopamine receptors, preventing your brain from producing this chemical, which naturally relieves pain and increases pleasure.
  • Damage the frontal lobe, which has important roles in attention, memory, and planning.
  • Increase pain sensitivity.
  • Short circuit your brain’s impulse control circuits, making it even harder for you to resist cravings and sometimes leading to aggression.

Opioids and Mental Health Issues

There is a very strong link between opioids and mental health problems, with these two issues often going hand in hand. People with substance use disorders frequently have anxiety or mood disorders at the same time and are more likely to be a suicide risk. The opposite is also true, with a high number of people with mental health disorders turning to substances for relief from symptoms.

People with mental health disorders don’t necessarily misuse medications like opioids and may take them to address other health concerns. However, people with mental health disorders may be at higher risk for addiction to opioids, and they are far more likely to misuse opioids than people with good mental health.

Signs of Opioid Problems

An image of someone reaching across the floor towards a syringeLong-term use of opioids can cause a range of problems including death, disability, and legal problems. And yet people keep using them because of their effects, sometimes leading to opioid use disorder. This is defined as a problematic pattern of opioid use that leads to more serious problems.

People who develop opioid use disorder experience at least 2 of the following in a 12-month period:

  • Inability to cut down or control opioid use
  • Increased use of opioids or taking them for longer than intended
  • Cravings
  • Increased time spent obtaining, using, or recovering from opioids
  • Social, work, relationship, home, or school problems
  • Inability to quit despite problems
  • Reduce engagement in everyday activities
  • Using opioids in dangerous situations
  • Increased tolerance of opioids, resulting in diminished effects or increased use
  • Inability to quit despite occurrence or worsening of physical or psychological problems as a result of opioids
  • Withdrawal when trying to stop

How to Combat Addiction

If you’re struggling with opioid addiction, then it’s vitally important that you get professional help. Detoxing from opioid addictions can be very painful, dangerous, and even deadly and shouldn’t be done without medical supervision. But addressing the mental health aspects of addiction can be just as difficult and dangerous. This is because opioids and mental health are so strongly interconnected.

Here are some of the strategies that may be part of your journey to reversing opioid addiction and achieving better mental health:

  • A personalized plan tailored to your situation
  • Detox from the drug itself or substitution therapy with a less debilitating opioid
  • Long term management
  • Counseling
  • FDA approved medications
  • Outpatient or inpatient medical or psychological interventions
  • Behavioral interventions that work on rewiring the brain, breaking old habits, and establishing new ones
  • Recovery support services like support groups or peer support specialists

Mental Health in Adrenal Fatigue

If you have Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), then you need to be more aware of and take steps to protect your mental health. AFS is caused by stress, which can be very deleterious for your mental health.

Stress is one of the biggest problems and health threats in the modern world. When you’re stressed, your NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response activates, prompting changes throughout your body. These changes help protect your body from getting damaged by the cause of your stress.

The adrenal glands are one of the most vital parts of the NEM stress response because they produce cortisol, your key stress hormone. Unfortunately, chronic stress can result in the NEM stress response remaining active over a long period. In this situation, the adrenals can become fatigued and start to malfunction, leading to problems in the six circuits of organs and systems in the NEM stress response. The uncomfortable symptoms of AFS, inability to continue with your normal life and trouble getting help from your doctor can contribute to declining mental health.

Because of the symptoms and health problems that can occur with AFS, you may find that your doctor recommends taking opioids. However, you may need to be very careful to avoid developing a dependency in this situation due to the combination of spiraling symptoms and declining mental health. Taking opioids and the effort that the body has to make to break them down could also cause stress, exacerbating AFS.

The Neuroaffect Circuit and Mental Health

An image of microbiomeThe part of the NEM most affected by the link between opioids and mental health is the Neuroaffect Circuit. The Neuroaffect Circuit includes the brain, the autonomic nervous system, and the microbiome. The microbiome is the balance of bacteria in the body, particularly in the gut. When this triad becomes unbalanced, it can be responsible for the biological aspects of mental health problems.

When you’re under stress, neurotransmitters (NTs) and hormones can become unbalanced. These are the body’s chemical messengers and are particularly important to the functioning of the brain. Norepinephrine and epinephrine in particular can be very problematic. These chemicals can leave you feeling jittery, anxious, and unable to sleep when they’re out of balance.

Taking additional medications that affect the brain, such as opioids, can be very dangerous in this kind of situation. Your resistance to opioid dependency may also be lower when you’re unwell due to unbalanced dopamine levels, pain, and poor mental health.

That’s why it’s vital that you seek out medical advice from someone who’s aware of AFS and the effects it can have on your body before you take any kind of medication. They will be able to design a recovery plan that works with your body and without making your symptoms worse.

The Takeaway

Opioids are powerful drugs that can be an essential part of a medical treatment plan. Unfortunately, their effects mean that they’re also often used illicitly, causing great harm and impact to users and their families.

Despite the harm they cause, these drugs are becoming ever more popular in the US and other western countries. This may be because of the link between opioids and mental health disorders, with these drugs used to decrease symptoms and mental suffering. Here’s what you need to know about this link:

  1. You must seek professional help to address addiction and mental health issues. It can be dangerous to go through opioid withdrawal without medical support.
  2. Long-term misuse of opioids can actually damage the brain, increase pain levels, and decrease pleasure levels.
  3. People with mental health disorders are more likely to experience substance use disorders and vice versa. This means if you have mental health issues, you are at higher risk of opioid addiction even if these medications are recommended for another condition.

For more information on how adrenal fatigue can be connected to mental health disorders, you can talk to our team at +1 (626) 571-1234 or click here.

© Copyright 2022 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

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The link between opioids and mental health can put people with mental health disorders at higher risk for drug addiction when prescribed these medications for other purposes. And just stopping these drugs can be dangerous. Here's what you need to know.

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