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Is Heroin a Stimulant or a Depressant?

Most habit-forming substances fall into two drug categories: stimulants or depressants. Stimulants speed up bodily functions while depressants slow them down. Heroin is an opioid drug that falls into the category of a depressant.

What is Heroin?

Heroin is a highly addictive opioid drug that is made from the sap of the seed pod of various opium poppy plants that are grown in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico, and Colombia. It usually comes in the form of a brown or white powder or a sticky, dark brown substance. People who abuse heroin inject, snort, or smoke the drug to produce euphoric and pain-relieving effects.[1]

Once ingested, heroin enters the brain and quickly binds to opioid receptors throughout the body. It particularly affects feelings involved with pain and pleasure. Heroin use also plays a role in slowing down heart rate, pulse, and breathing.

Heroin is a Schedule I controlled substance indicating a high risk for abuse and no recognized medical potential.[2] It is both physically and psychologically addictive. Heroin is considered a depressant because it slows down vital functions of the central nervous system (CNS). In high doses, the drug can reduce breathing and heart rate to dangerous levels, and can cause a potentially fatal opioid overdose.


Side Effects of Heroin

Upon using heroin, users experience a “rush” or a fast surge of pleasant and euphoric feelings. These feelings are what makes heroin so psychologically addictive so quickly. However, as a depressant drug, heroin also produces a number of other concerning side effects, such as:[1]

Heroin Side Effects

  • Warm flushing of the skin
  • Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • Dry mouth
  • Itching
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Clouded mental functioning
  • “Nodding out” or going back and forth between a state of consciousness and semiconsciousness

Long-term heroin use is not only addictive, but it is also dangerous to the mind and body. Long-term side effects include:

Long-term side effects of heroin

  • Collapsed veins in IV drug users
  • Damaged nasal tissue in people who snort the drug
  • Infection of the heart lining
  • Insomnia
  • Abscesses on the skin
  • Liver and/or kidney disease
  • Lung complications such as pneumonia
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and antisocial personality disorder

Understanding The Difference Between a Depressant and a Stimulant

Stimulant and Depressant: The Difference

Mood and mind-altering substances are often divided into two categories: stimulants and depressants. Stimulants, also known as “uppers,” make the central nervous system work faster. This is accomplished by increasing the production and reuptake of dopamine in the brain. They speed up heart rate, breathing, increase body temperature, and more. Common side effects of stimulant drugs are:[3]

  • Decreased appetite
  • Increased wakefulness and energy
  • Increased focus and alertness
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated mood
  • Faster respiration

Some of the most popular stimulant drugs include:

  • Prescription stimulants like Adderall, Vyvanse, and Desoxyn
  • Cocaine
  • Crack cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • MDMA or ecstasy

Depressants, on the other hand, are referred to as “downers” because they cause sedative and tranquilizing effects by slowing down the central nervous system. Depressant drugs slow down heart rate, breathing, and decrease body temperature. They do this by increasing the activity of the chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain.

There are many different kinds of depressants, each of which produces slightly different side effects.

  • Benzodiazepines or “benzos” are used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. They promote feelings of relaxation and calm.
  • Opioids or opiates are pain-relieving drugs that promote feelings of pain relief, well-being, and sleep.
  • Sleep medications or “z-drugs” such as Ambien and Lunesta promote sleep by slowing down the central nervous system.

Is Heroin a Stimulant or a Depressant?

Heroin is an opioid, so it is a central nervous system depressant. Like other opioid drugs, it slows down activity in the central nervous system.

Heroin binds to mu-opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors regulate pain. However, in addition to decreasing pain, opioid receptors are also involved in producing feelings of pleasure, controlling a person’s heart rate and breathing, and impairing cognitive function. As a result, heroin slows down the autonomic functions in the body that control respiration.

In high doses, heroin can slow down breathing and heart rate to dangerous levels, resulting in an overdose. Symptoms of heroin overdose include:[4]

heroin overdose symptoms

  • Slow or shallow breathing
  • Pale skin
  • Bluish colored lips or fingertips
  • Gasping for air
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Weak or undetectable pulse
  • Low blood pressure
  • Inability to stay awake
  • Disorientation or delirium

If an overdose is caught in time, naloxone can be administered to temporarily restore a person’s breathing until they can receive additional medical support.

Does Heroin Cause Depression?

Depression is a mood disorder that is characterized by chronic feelings of fatigue, hopelessness, low self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts. Depressants, on the other hand, simply slow brain activity by increasing GABA in the brain. Just because a drug is considered a depressant does not mean it causes depression.

Depression is a serious mental health condition that can have many causes and underlying factors. However, heroin use is linked to high rates of mental health conditions like depression.

The more a person uses heroin, the more their brain and body change to adapt to having the drug in their system. They build tolerance and physical dependence on the drug that makes every aspect of life complicated. Individuals who are addicted to heroin may experience isolation, loneliness, job loss, housing instability, financial problems, and more. Not only that, but they are also altering their brain chemistry using dangerous substances, causing both structural and functional damage to the brain.[5] These changes, along with environmental factors and consequences of drug use, can easily lead to the development of depression in people who abuse heroin.

Find Help for Heroin Addiction Today

Heroin is a highly addictive, dangerous, and deadly depressant drug that can destroy everything in a person’s path. Fortunately, heroin addiction is entirely treatable with the help of a comprehensive treatment program.

If you or a loved one are addicted to heroin, our team at Mandala Healing Center can help. Call now to get started.