Heroin use is on the rise in the United States. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) publishes that nearly 1 million Americans reported past-year use of the illegal opiate in 2016. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) further explains that this trends in heroin abuse rates in the United States have been increasing exponentially since 2007.
Heroin is a highly addictive drug. With repeated use, it can change brain chemistry enough to cause drug dependence, which comes with difficult withdrawal symptoms when the drug wears off and processes out of the bloodstream.
Drug withdrawal is a combination of symptoms that occur as a result of brain chemistry becoming unbalanced due to regular interaction of a drug like heroin.
When heroin enters the brain, it binds to opioid receptors and causes a surge of the “happy signaling” neurotransmitter dopamine. When heroin wears off, dopamine levels drop quickly, and it can take the brain a bit to build them back up again. Each time this interaction occurs, the brain can take longer to reset between doses. The brain then starts to rely on heroin to keep chemical levels balanced, and drug dependence sets in.
Withdrawal symptoms are the result of heroin dependence. They can be both physically uncomfortable and emotionally intense.
Many methods claim to help a person detox from heroin. In truth, the safest way to detox from heroin and manage withdrawal symptoms is through a medical detox program. Medical detox provides 24/7 care and supervision along with medical treatment, continual monitoring of vital signs, emotional and mental health support, and medications to manage specific withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings.
That being said, there are many things a person can do in addition to a professional detox program to smooth the withdrawal process. There are various holistic and complementary methods, over-the-counter medications and supplements, and measures a person can take to ease heroin withdrawal.
Heroin is classified as a short-acting opiate drug since it takes effects so quickly after ingestion and also wears off fast. The U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) explains that heroin withdrawal symptoms will typically begin within about 12 hours of the last dose of the drug.
The duration and timeline for withdrawal, as well as the intensity of the symptoms, can be influenced by several factors, including personal biological and genetic components.
The main aspect that will determine the severity of withdrawal is the level of physical and psychological dependence on heroin. This is impacted by how high of a dose is taken regularly and how often, as well as by how heroin is abused.
Injecting and snorting heroin can increase the rate of dependence rapidly. Mixing heroin with other drugs can also influence withdrawal.
In general, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) publishes that acute (or the most intense part of) opioid withdrawal lasts between four and 10 days on average. Symptoms will generally peak in the first day or two after stopping heroin use and then start to improve over the next few days. Drug cravings, depression, insomnia, cognitive issues, and mood disturbances can stick around for a few weeks to months after the last dose of heroin if the level of dependence is relatively high.
People who have used large amounts of heroin for a long time are more likely to struggle with longer and more significant protracted withdrawal symptoms. Heroin withdrawal is often compared to a very bad case of the flu coupled with intense mood swings and difficult drug cravings.
Heroin is a potent opiate drug. Once dependence has formed, it should not be stopped suddenly without professional help due to the intensity of drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms that can begin in a matter of hours. As mentioned previously, a medical detox program is an optimal place for allowing heroin to process out of the body in a safe space where medications can be used to ease withdrawal.
During medical detox, heroin can be switched out with another longer-acting opioid drug, such as methadone or buprenorphine to slowly taper opioids out of the body to minimize the significance of withdrawal symptoms and cravings. This can keep the brain from going into a kind of “shock” while it tries to rebalance its chemical makeup.
Weaning heroin and opioids out of the brain and body slowly over some time instead of stopping them cold turkey can allow the brain to restore its natural chemical balance with fewer side effects. Therapy, counseling, and support groups are beneficial during heroin withdrawal, as they offer tips for minimizing relapse, tools for managing stress and coping with triggers, and encouragement.
It is important to eat healthy during heroin detox to boost physical health and strength. Choose balanced and nutritious meals that are full of vitamins and minerals while staying away from processed foods, fried foods, refined sugars, and caffeine. NLM reports that eating a diet high in fiber and full of complex carbohydrates can help to restore energy and improve symptoms of opiate withdrawal while serving to restore nutritional balance.
Many supplements can promote wellness and healing. These can be discussed with a medical professional to confirm they are helpful and right for your body.
During heroin withdrawal, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea can lead to significant dehydration, so drink plenty of water to counteract this. Antidiarrheal medications and anti-nausea meds may be beneficial.
Other over-the-counter medications, such nonsteroidal painkillers and antihistamines, may help when taken as directed in proper dosage amounts. The body heals with rest, and getting enough sleep during withdrawal is incredibly important. Sleep aids may be helpful since insomnia and sleep disturbances can make restful sleep more difficult than normal during withdrawal. Have a set schedule for sleeping and waking, and establish a soothing nighttime routine before bed each night.
Stress can complicate withdrawal and amplify its side effects. Group and individual counseling sessions can provide methods to alleviate stress. In addition, you can stay busy and active during heroin withdrawal. This can keep the mind occupied and boost endorphins naturally, which can help to restore the brain’s chemical makeup faster.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) publishes that physical activity can lower tension and stress levels naturally. Exercise is a common mechanism for coping with stress since it helps to improve physical fitness and mental health at the same time. It can also improve self-esteem and self-confidence levels as physical stamina, strength, and positive body changes occur with regular exercise.
Other methods for improving moods and relieving stress include creative expressions like art, dancing, painting, sculpting, music, writing, and drawing. These can be great methods of distraction, and they can even be therapeutic.
Complementary and holistic methods can minimize stress, reduce cravings, and smooth out heroin withdrawal symptoms. Yoga and mindfulness meditation can help a person become better in tune with their own bodies, and they can strengthen the connection between the body and the mind. In doing this, a person can then start to recognize when something doesn’t feel right physically or mentally and make proper adjustments.
Self-awareness can go a long way toward healing. It can aid in minimizing relapses and dealing with potential triggers, the journal Substance Abuse reports. Mindfulness meditation is a skill that can be practiced anywhere, at any time, to deal with situations and stressors that arise.
Another form of complementary medicine that can be helpful during addiction treatment is acupuncture. This is the process of inserting specialized needles into specific points in the body to improve blood flow and energy.
The journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine publishes that acupuncture is a safe, noninvasive, and helpful tool during opiate addiction treatment to minimize relapse and decrease drug cravings. Other alternative methods like chiropractic care, massage therapy, and yoga can all reduce stress and physical discomfort through body manipulation as well.
These methods are best when used as adjunctive treatments in conjunction with counseling, therapy, and medication management during heroin withdrawal. They should not be used as the primary forms of treatment.
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