Many people who find themselves struggling with heroin addiction make the decision to quit using, but whether out of shame of admitting to a problem or fear that they can’t afford professional treatment, they try to break their habit on their own. Detoxing from heroin at home is incredibly risky. While it is theoretically possible to do safely, people will have a much greater chance of successful detox if they go to a treatment center.
To better understand why detoxing from heroin at home is not safe, it is necessary to briefly look at what heroin is and how it works. Heroin is derived from the chemical compounds in the opium poppy; this origin means that it works on the opioid receptors in the brain and the central nervous system. This is why heroin and other opioids have painkilling effects when consumed.
The opioid receptors, as part of the opioid system, play a major role in the regulation of pain. The neurochemical connections in the system are also responsible for how people experience pleasure and the anticipation of pleasure. This is why, historically, the seeds of the poppy plant were used in religious and medical rituals, and it is why heroin and other drugs based on the compounds of the poppy plants are so effective in treating pain and inducing feelings of happiness and comfort. Not coincidentally, this is also what makes opioids strongly addictive; the effects are powerfully desirable and very habit-forming.
While all opioids work in roughly similar ways, heroin’s chemistry is such that it works much faster, and to a much stronger degree, than other opioids. If the heroin is injected into a vein, the molecules reach the opioid receptors in the brain in only 10 seconds. When this happens, the effects are instantaneous. Users feel an overwhelming wave of euphoria, followed by a sensation of calm and tranquility more intense than any they have previously experienced.
The physical and psychological mechanisms of effects can make heroin devastatingly difficult to quit. As with most other substances, users build up a tolerance for the drug; that is, increasing amounts of it are required to feel the same basic sensation (a simple process of the body acclimatizing to the heroin, and then needing more to continue to feel its effects). Not only does the dependence on heroin deepen, but the act of stopping heroin intake becomes more difficult and more dangerous on its own. With so much exposure to such a potent substance, the brain becomes so sensitized to the presence of the heroin that cutting off the supply leaves the user incapable of functioning normally.
This process is known as withdrawal. As a user starves the body of heroin, the body and mind react violently, unleashing a wave of physically and psychologically distressing symptoms, including:
Heroin withdrawal is not life-threatening on its own, but it is nonetheless very dangerous. For example, a malnourished user might lose what little nutrients they have due to diarrhea and vomiting, which can cause heart failure and death by starvation. Similarly, a chronic heroin user, or a user who has a history of mental health illnesses, might develop suicidal ideation as a result of withdrawal-induced depression. Additionally, the pain and discomfort of withdrawal might compel a user to go back on their heroin in an attempt at alleviation; this might lead to a lethal overdose, especially if the user increases the dose taken to overcome the symptoms.
For these reasons, it is highly inadvisable to detox from heroin at home. Detoxification is a complex medical process, where multiple body systems go through many radical changes as the physical need for the heroin is broken. And that need is a powerful one; the influx of heroin suppresses many parts of the central nervous system. Key life-sustaining operations, like heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and body temperature, come to depend more on heroin than they do the body’s own functioning.
Removing heroin from the equation – starving the opioid receptors of the opioid molecules – doesn’t reset these operations to their default state. It throws them into a panic, as each system struggles to cope and adjust to the sudden deprivation of the powerful depressant that had controlled them.
A home environment is not a secure, clean space for these changes to happen. Users may not get the anti-anxiety medications that help ease the experience, and access to other chemical substances – anything from alcohol to over-the-counter medications, to more heroin and opioids – can be too tempting to resist. If taken, these drugs can destabilize dozens of systems that need to be precisely rebalanced.
Some users may have legitimate concerns about going to a treatment facility for detox. They may worry about not being able to afford it and that paying for the process will bankrupt them and add to their other financial woes. Other users fear the shame and guilt of admitting to a problem or confiding the truth of their addiction to a group of strangers.
These are all valid worries about seeking help for a heroin problem, but they should not dissuade a person from taking the first step of treatment. Nonetheless, if a person insists on detoxing from heroin at home, there are a few things to do to ensure the process is as safe as possible.
First, it is necessary to taper off heroin as slowly as possible before bringing the use down to zero. The idea behind this is that it limits the severity of the withdrawal effects. However, you should know that because of how strong heroin is and how addiction works, this kind of self-regulated tapering is incredibly difficult to do, and many people who try it struggle with relapse and a return to addiction. Working with a trusted friend or family member, who can keep you in check, might be necessary to taper on your own.
The vomiting and diarrhea of withdrawal can also lead to quick dehydration. This can, in turn, cause other health complications, such as dizziness, fatigue, and mental disorientation. In a hospital or clinic, patients are given an intravenous drip to keep them hydrated during the detox process. At home, you won’t have that, so it is important to drink a lot of hydrating fluids, such as electrolyte solutions, to restore the vital balances of sugars and salts.
Some over-the-counter medications can also help you safely detox from heroin at home. Imodium, for example, can assist with diarrhea; Dramamine is useful for nausea. Deep pain in the muscles and bones can be alleviated with Tylenol or ibuprofen.
Because your body is still in recovery mode, it is very important that you do not use any of these medications for longer than the recommended use or in greater doses than recommended, no matter how severe the withdrawal symptoms are. Similarly, these medications should not be consumed if there are any other drugs in your system.
Heroin withdrawal symptoms begin around the 12th hour after the last dose of heroin.
They reach their peak between one and three days later, depending on the extent of the use, the patient’s physiology, and other determining factors. Symptoms eventually fade away by the seventh day of the process.
Some symptoms may linger, and this is normal. If you intend to detox at home, this timeline might be altered because there is a greater risk for more environmental issues disrupting the natural flow of the process than there would be at a treatment facility.
Stories have emerged of people using vitamins, supplements, and alternative medicine such as acupuncture to treat the effects of heroin detox at home. According to the Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine journal, there is not a significant body of evidence regarding the effectiveness or safety of these methods.
Coming out of this trend are detox drinks that have been marketed as potential ways of staving off the worst of withdrawal symptoms. Such drinks are presented as being “all-natural” and are preferable alternatives to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications that reduce joint pain or the anticonvulsant drugs that treat seizure-related withdrawal. Multivitamin drinks, for example, purport to replenish nutrients that are lost due to diarrhea, vomiting, and a loss of appetite. Products such as vitamin C supplements that help reduce blood pressure are sold over the counter at drugstores, or they are available at specialty supplement stores.
Some products, such as milk thistle, N-acetylcysteine and alpha-lipoic acid, go so far as to claim they can restore full functionality to organs and systems damaged by drug abuse.
Questions remain about the safety of using these materials to detox from heroin at home. In 2008, the Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology journal wrote that the liquid extract of passionflower, taken with clonidine (for blood pressure regulation), could reduce insomnia and anxiety in patients experiencing opioid withdrawal. But researchers also warned that the side effects, such as dizziness and nausea, were signs that some strains of passionflower could still contain chemicals that could harm the liver.
The larger question remains: Are detox drinks and supplements safe for home-based heroin withdrawal? There is still very little evidence-based research on that, and what research has been conducted suggests that patients are better served if they detox under medical supervision. Additionally, patients should check with a doctor before consuming detox drinks. While being ostensibly “natural,” the body is very weak following addiction and during detox, and the chemicals in detox drinks could cause unintentional reactions.
Experts recommend that if you really want to take detox supplements, you should do so after your detox process has finished. Supplements should not be used as a primary resource during detox, but instead to help rebuild your strength and nutrition after completing detox.
Mental Health Daily notes that patients should not take detox drinks or supplements without the explicit approval of a healthcare provider, and even then, not everyone will benefit from the products. As with any other drug, detox drinks have their own recommended dosages, so taking too much, or combining different supplemental products, can have harmful interactions with a recovering body system.
Ultimately, if you are looking for ways to safely detox from heroin at home, it is important that you make yourself as comfortable as possible. You will need distractions to take your mind away from the physical and psychological effects of withdrawal. You will need a trusted and knowledgeable family member or friend to stay with you, or at least to check in on you, as you detox.
Stay away from anecdotal stories and urban legends online. Do activities that will boost your body’s endorphins (such as laugh, have some chocolate, get some exercise, and fresh air).
Opioids mimic the function of endorphins, but to a much more powerful extent, effectively replacing them. This is the mechanism by which people are unable to feel pleasure without heroin. Rebuilding endorphin production helps users break the dependence and expectation of heroin.
Even if you choose to detox from heroin at home, don’t do it alone. Get support from people you know; tell people you trust that you are going to quit cold turkey. When the process becomes incredibly difficult, they can offer moral support and help, and they can call 911 if you become incapacitated. You should also consider calling for a doctor if you become dehydrated or malnourished as a result of your detox; if the detox leads to suicidal ideation, respiratory problems, rapid heart rate; or if you have other medical conditions that become complicated as a result of the withdrawal.
Detoxing from heroin at home is possible, but it’s incredibly dangerous. In most circumstances, you are much better off going to a treatment center for help. Many facilities have payment plans to help every person get the treatment they need, and there are a number of programs available that will work with you on paying off the cost of your treatment.
Additionally, a treatment center will connect you with counseling, therapy, and aftercare support to ensure that the hard work of detox continues into psychological and social rehabilitation. Without those, your chances of staying sober over the long-term are very low.
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