One of the most powerful drugs on the street market, fentanyl has gained notoriety over the years due to its devastating impact on individuals and communities. While its potency is often remarked upon, little is discussed about how the drug works in the body and mind. It is these mechanisms of action that create such a powerful hold over those who use it. Let’s delve into the science behind this influential narcotic and examine your brain on fentanyl.
How Fentanyl Works
Fentanyl’s potent pain-relieving properties are so effective due to its interaction within the body. Once ingested, it binds to the opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord. This alters the individual's perception of pain, reducing its severity and inducing a profound feeling of euphoria.
Making its way through the synapses, fentanyl triggers a large dump of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is part of the reward system and associated with pleasure. The increase of dopamine elicits a feeling of contentment and satisfaction making the drug so addictive. The brain forms an association between the drug and pleasure which reinforces the behavior and creates a cycle of addiction.
Short-Term Effects of Fentanyl on the Brain and Body
The initial effects of fentanyl range from pain relief, euphoria, and drowsiness, to nausea, confusion, and respiratory depression. When a user first takes fentanyl they experience the pleasurable parts of euphoria. Over time, the individual may find themselves lapsing into an unconscious state somewhere between daydreaming and sleep. For many users, especially those with trauma or psychological pain, this semi-unconscious state is the end goal of fentanyl abuse as time seems to stand still and nothing but the opioid haze exists.
Unfortunately, the lapsing into unconsciousness can turn fatal when the amount of fentanyl is too much and the brain's central nervous system becomes overwhelmed and shuts down. The already depressed breathing can stop entirely and this, along with the brain shutting down leads to an overdose. Due to the potency of fentanyl, the line between “nodding off” and an overdose is very thin and many people unintentionally overdose seeking a high.
When the pattern of use is continued over a long-enough time period, the body begins to adapt to the presence of fentanyl in its system. This causes less responsiveness to the drug and an increased dosage to achieve the same euphoric effects. Increasing the dose also increases the risk of an overdose. As the body adapts and the dose rises, the body begins to create a physical dependence on the drug. With physical dependence comes withdrawal symptoms - a response from the survival part of the brain. Withdrawals are essentially your body and brain screaming for more drugs. Fentanyl withdrawal is especially severe and unpleasant and can be fatal if untreated.
Prolonged fentanyl use will also wreak havoc on mental health. When use continues over time, the brain begins to shut down its own production of specific neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. It essentially hijacks the way your brain’s pleasure and reward systems work causing them to be nonfunctional unless in the presence of fentanyl. This makes the users happiness and mood dependent on the drug. Mood swings, depression, anxiety, and inability to sleep are common mental health concerns with fentanyl users. Should there be co-occurring mental health issues such as bipolar disorder or PTSD, fentanyl use will exacerbate these conditions as well.
Too often we ask the question “why?” and not “how?” Whether using fentanyl or knowing someone who is, it is important to understand how the drug works in the body and brain so you know what to expect and why. Hopefully you feel like you have a better grasp of fentanyl’s effects and the need for professional help when dealing with fentanyl addiction. If you or someone you know is battling with this deadly drug, there is help available. Call Sunflower Recovery today to speak with professionals and come up with a treatment plan. This is a cycle that can be stopped. Recovery is possible.