Opiate drugs all have one thing in common: they depress or slow down the body’s central nervous system. According to the Institute for Substance Abuse Treatment Evaluation, some opiates come from the raw, natural substance known as opium, while others are manufactured to have the same chemical structure as the raw opium material.
The chemical make-up of these drugs closely resembles the brain’s natural endorphin chemicals. Endorphins act as the body’s own pain-relieving chemicals. When opiate drugs interact with certain key brain receptor sites, massive amounts of endorphin chemicals are released.
Through their effects on the central nervous system, opiates produce analgesic effects outside of the brain’s regulatory control. When abused, these drugs eventually take over brain and central nervous system processes, which accounts for their highly addictive potential.
While most opiates work in the same way as the brain’s own pain-relief chemicals, another class of opiates known as antagonists can actually counteract the effects of other opiate drugs. The unique effects of opiate antagonists can also serve a medicinal purpose.
According to Princeton University, opiates make up the wide variety of drugs made from, or based on, specific alkaloid substances derived from the opium poppy plant. While the poppy plant actually contains over 50 different alkaloid substances, not all of them carry analgesic properties. Of the 50 different alkaloids, only half of them qualify as raw opiate materials.
Technically speaking, only drugs made from the analgesic-type opium alkaloids qualify as opiate drugs; however, semisynthetic drugs are also derived from these alkaloids and can technically be considered opiates as well.
Natural opiate drugs exist as the purest renditions of raw opium materials. According to the University of Michigan, only three types of opiate drugs qualify as “natural”:
- Opium tinctures
Of all the opiate drugs, morphine appears in the highest concentrations within raw opium materials. According to Weber State University, approximately 10 percent of opium is made up of morphine.
Codeine also exists in consistent concentration levels of .05 percent. Codeine’s lower concentration makes for a considerably less potent drug than morphine.
Opium tinctures take the form of alcohol solutions that contain the weaker analgesic alkaloids, such as Paragoric and Laudanum.
Semisynthetic opiates contain a combination a natural opium alkaloids and synthetically made opiate materials. Semisynthetic opiate drugs include:
- Hydrocodone (brand name, Vicodin)
- Oxycodone (brand names, OxyContin, Percodan)
Each of the semisynthetic opiates exists in small concentrations within raw opium materials. Heroin is derived from morphine, but has a considerably higher potency than morphine because of the way it’s synthesized.
Likewise, hydrocodone, oxycodone and hydromorphone all have higher potencies than the alkaloids from which they’re derived.
While opiate antagonist drugs interact with the same brain cell receptor sites as the natural and semisynthetic opiates, antagonist-type drugs produce different effects. Rather than trigger endorphin secretions, opiate antagonists have a muting effect in terms of deactivating the endorphin secretion response.
Opiate antagonist drugs include:
These drugs work well as treatments for opiate addiction. Naloxone, in particular, can also be used to reverse the effects of opiate overdose in cases where respiratory failure occurs.