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Are you concerned about a loved one who has begun to experiment with heroin? Or do you have a friend who’s been using heroin for a while, and you’re wondering how to help them?

Experts estimate that one out of every four people who try heroin will become addicted. But why is heroin so addictive? And what can you do to address addiction? Read on to learn more.

First, the Basics

Heroin is derived from morphine, which in turn comes from the poppy plant. It can be snorted, smoked, or injected intravenously. A depressant, heroin works directly on the central nervous system. It causes feelings of euphoria, and numbs both the brain and the body.

Users may become nauseated or vomit, experience intense itching, and become very drowsy. This is called “nodding out.” Long-term adverse effects can include liver disease, kidney disease, and pulmonary complications. Those who inject heroin run the risk of contracting hepatitis or HIV due to dirty needles, and also tend to have a higher rate of addiction.

Why Is Heroin So Addictive?

The Pleasure Principle

Quite simply, one of the reasons that heroin is addictive is the intensely pleasurable feeling it provides. Its powerful numbing effects help the user forget her troubles for several hours at a time.

Opioids such as heroin attach to receptors in the midbrain, the same ones that light up during other pleasurable activities like eating and having sex.


In the 1970s, researchers learned that the human body produces its own opioid-like substances. You’ve probably heard of one of them: endorphins. When you taste something delicious (or something spicy), experience an orgasm, work out, or get a massage, endorphins are released.


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s often characterized as a “feel good” chemical. Dopamine is naturally produced by the body to provide relief from pain or when experiencing a pleasurable sensation, but external sources provide it too.

The levels of dopamine produced by heroin can be 10 times as high as that which we naturally produce. So it’s easy to see why heroin can become addictive!

Fully understanding the science behind addiction can be difficult unless you have a background in neurobiology. For the scope of this article, suffice it to say that both endorphins and dopamine are involved in triggering euphoria and killing pain.

Long-Term Effects of Heroin

Over time, heroin fundamentally changes the brain’s prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe. These areas regulate memory, reasoning, decision making, planning, problem-solving, and emotional processing. Our response to stress is also altered by long-term drug use.

Unfortunately, all of these processes eventually become impaired or damaged through heroin addiction. A proverbial “vicious cycle” ensues. Inability to make sound decisions or plan for the future leads the user to another fix of heroin, over and over ad infinitum — or until she seeks rehab services.

In Closing

Answering the question “Why is heroin so addictive?” is complicated. It’s important to know that every heroin user has her own story to tell.

You can help a friend or loved one get to the bottom of addiction — and more importantly, recover from it — by learning more. Take a look at our blog for informative articles on drugs, addiction, and what to expect from rehab.