Opiates: Do They Help or Hinder Healing?

Since opiates are such powerful drugs and highly addictive, do they a help or hinder healing? How do they help us heal?

Getting the right information

I am in recovery from opiates and benzodiazepines. Doctors prescribed them to me for 31 years. I had read the warnings on the labels but never truly understood the action of these drugs on my overall health. Until I got clean from them, I did not understand how truly detrimental they were to my health. The prescribing doctors never explained to me the overall effect of these drugs on the body. And I didn’t think to ask about anything beyond what the labels already said.

For opiates, the labels warn about respiratory depression, constipation, and the possibility of addiction.  Also mentioned are nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, dizziness, or drowsiness. The list of these effects does not reveal the full story. Exactly how do opiates help the body heal? Are opiates helping or do they hinder the healing process?

When opiates are prescribed for more than a few days

As a recovery coach, a number of people have come to me and asked me how to stop taking their opiates.  They are all people who were in recovery and then had surgery and were given an opiate, like Norco, to help them with the pain. After a few months or even a few weeks, they find that they experience withdraw symptoms if they stop taking their opiates. One would think that with all the deaths due to opiate overdose that these medications would be less available. Yes and no. Some people continue to be given opiates past three months after the initial need for acute pain relief is past.

How do opiates affect the body?

Let’s look at the action of an opiate on the body. When pain is acute and is so intense that the body is unduly stressed, there is most certainly a place for opiates – in the short term. Dr. Gabor Mate explains the main effect opiates have on pain  in his bestselling book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. He states: Opiates do not “take away” pain. Instead, they reduce our consciousness of it as an unpleasant stimulus.”

The effects are powerful and do not help the body heal. (Although the term is commonly used, I do not recognize the term “side effects.” I believe the term ‘side effect’ is a marketing term alone. A drug is taken for a certain effect, but so often there are other effects the body experiences. These are not side issues, these are main issues, as you will see when you read further.)

The problem with breathing

Opiates depress the respiratory system, so the user cannot adequately take in nourishing oxygen. In this state, the  body cannot properly detoxify the toxins normally expelled in the breath. The exhale accounts for the most release of toxins in the body by weight when compared to the other routes of escape – sweat and through the bowels. So, right here the body’s ability to heal is compromised.

The need for enough water

Next, opiates dehydrate the body. Adequate water must be present for the body to function properly. This is even more important when the body is stressed with an injury. So, here opiates hinder the body’s ability to heal.

Opiates paralyze the gut

When we opiate ingest an opiate, the gastrointestinal tract becomes paralyzed, so the body’s ability to digest food is hampered. Strike three – the body struggles to take in much needed nutrients in its pursuit to heal.

And finally, with the opiate’s dehydrating and paralytic effects, the body becomes constipated and so has difficulty releasing toxins from this route. When it comes to promoting nutrient intake and waste release, opiates hinder the body’s ability to perform these critical tasks.

When opiates help

Let me summarize. The effect of an opiate on the body is to greatly hinder its ability to both take in nutrients and detoxify the body. The only benefit I have been able to ascertain that an opiate affords us is in its ability to help calm the nervous system when it is so stressed by the sensation of pain that it cannot heal. The sympathetic nervous system (flight, flight, freeze, shutdown) is on red alert and the body needs some help to switch to the parasympathetic nervous system where it can rest. Note here that the parasympathetic nervous system is also when the body is able to digest… and we have seen that opiates block this part of the process.

And I haven’t even addressed the addictive nature of opiates and all the trouble that causes.

Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of opiates

So, what is the advantage of taking an opiate beyond a span of a few hours after a physical trauma? The ‘side effects’/effects render this drug an inappropriate use for dealing with pain in terms of healing the body.

The next time, if there is a next time, a doctor offers opiates, I suggest that the first thing you ask them is, “What’s the exit plan?” And the next question might be, “Exactly why do you feel these will help me and for how long?”

Opiates Help or Hindrance