GENETICS AND OPIOID VULNERABILITY

Addiction is recognized as a disease by scientists, and now, finally, by most of us. It is no longer considered a moral weakness except by some who, like The Emperor and his new clothes, can’t see their own “moral weakness” but only those of others. Enough said.

As DNA research gains new insights by the day, we are learning how our DNA codes are regulated which will help in opioid treatments and prevention. Tiny differences in a persons DNA called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, SNPs, can indicate whether we have a higher or lower risk for addiction. Some of us have an opioid receptor gene with a single building block change that protects us against substance dependence in general and opioid dependence in particular. This is why the ‘opioid euphoria’ I wrote about doesn’t happen for us. But for others, variations in genes for three dopamine receptors – signaling pleasure – cause increased risk for opioid addiction.

Exposure matters in genetic expression, even across generations, according to how our body’s cells read them. In a recent study of opioids in rats (cited in the Ohio Society of Addiction Medicine’s blog on May 31, where much of this article is referenced from) the parents exposure to opioids changed the way their offspring read their DNA code, lessening their susceptibility to opioid addiction. This shows how one generation’s experiences can change the destiny of the next generation and although it hasn’t been studied in human substance abuse, it has been seen in other complex diseases like obesity.

Research suggests that people born into a culture of drug use may be more inclined to get and stay sober. Epigenetic’s may play a role. How this effects individuals born into a family with addiction issues like alcoholism, drugs, smoking, gambling, etc. is still unclear. For some of us, we observed behavior in our parents or relatives and made a concerted effort to not repeat it. Although our genes may have given us tendencies towards an addiction, a strong repulsion steered us away from it – and in my case, a strong dependence on the Lord.For our son, had we known how many of our relatives had addiction issues and how much power the addictive genes had, we would have been less permissive with our son in regards to drinking at an early age – and certainly more proactive once he was addicted to opioids. It might have changed the outcome for his life. I pray this information will help you, your family, and friends avoid the heartbreak we have had to live with.

Triggers

A young friend visited our blog this week and had a very disturbing experience. She is a recovering IV drug user and someone I rely upon for  honest input and opinions on drug addiction and recovery. She is one of the few opioid addicts we know who has survived to have a second chance at life.

When she saw the image of a needle in a spoon she said: “I absolutely can’t handle that kind of trigger. For the families of users and people in recovery, that image is especially traumatic. It would make my parents panic, and it made me panic also.”

I felt so unwise – and sorry. I thought back to why I had used that photo. It was one we found on our son’s phone months after he died – I was stunned when I saw it and found that he had taken it two weeks before he died. The fact that he took that photo, documenting his using, was so distressing to us – I felt he did it to urge himself to get help but just couldn’t. 

I wanted the photo to convey the reality of what we, as families of addicts, face in our daily lives. But, as another young recovering addict friend said: “It’s like having a graphic image of someone on their death bed being injected with chemo – and trying to use that for an article about cancer. It adds shock value, but not too much else.”

So what are triggers? Are they the same for everyone? Our son said it was not hard for him to be around us when we were drinking alcohol – it was his decision to drink or not. But that was not what actually happened when he was around friends and alcohol – he ended up drinking – and then relapsed on drugs. We don’t know what the other triggers were for him with opioids, but when an addict sees things that they associate with drugs and their own using, it causes intense cravings, memory flashbacks, PTSD symptoms, racing heart, panic – and ultimately a step towards finding and using their drug of choice.

There are many good articles on internal and external triggers for addicts and alcoholics. I will summarize a few important points from this article, well worth reading: Understanding Triggers

by Sonia Tagliareni  https://www.drugrehab.com/recovery/triggers/

Long-term drug use creates an association in the brain between daily routines and drug experiences. Individuals may suffer from uncontrollable drug or alcohol cravings when exposed to certain cues. The cravings act as a reflex to external or internal triggers, and this response can even affect individuals who have abstained from drugs or alcohol for a long time.

External triggers: are people, places, activities and objects that elicit thoughts or cravings associated with substance use…A NIDA study maintains that exposure to drug-related objects may influence a former addict’s behavior. The brain registers these stimuli and processes them in the same areas involved in drug-seeking behavior.

Internal triggers: are more challenging to manage than external triggers. They involve feelings, thoughts or emotions formerly associated with substance abuse. 

Stress: stress rendered people in recovery more vulnerable to other relapse triggers.

Another good article:

https://www.thefix.com/content/triggers-addiction-dawn-roberts0318

I am grateful for the feedback from our young friends. Reviewing the role of triggers has been an important reminder that there are many friends and strangers who need me to be more thoughtful about what they are struggling with on a daily basis and to take the time to find out what I can do – or should not do – to support their recovery efforts.

Access to Medications for Addiction?

In a conversation with a friend, she felt that drug addiction was basically related to poor choices and that recovery was also just a matter of choosing to stop. I guess at the core of it, she is right. An addict needs to decide they want to stop – but then what? Do they just exert will power, go through withdrawals and possibly a 12-step program, then all is well?

Sadly, this simplistic approach will not work for most opiate addicts. The physical changes that have taken place in the brain that cause the addiction need time – and lots of it – to even partially regenerate. The Ohio Society of Addiction Medicine recently posted this (https://ohsam.org/2018/01/12):

“Studies…have found that opioid addiction medications in general cut all-cause mortality among opioid addiction patients by half or more. The CDC, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and World Health Organization acknowledge their medical value.”

The blog continues to discuss the lack of access that the majority of addicts in America have to the three medicines that specifically treat opioid addiction and some of the reasons for it:

“A major reason for that is stigma. These medications are often characterized as ‘replacing one drug with another’…This fundamentally misunderstands how (opioid) addiction works. The problem is not drug use per se; most Americans, after all, use caffeine, alcohol, and medications without major problems. The problem is when drug use becomes a personal or social burden — risk of overdose or leading someone to commit crimes to obtain drugs.  Medications for opioid addiction, by staving opioid withdrawal and cravings without leading to a significant risk of overdose, mitigate or outright eliminate those problems — treating the core concerns with addiction.”

Then there is the issue of large segments of the country without doctors who can prescribe buprenorphine/naloxone due to licensing limits – and the costs for patients.

“In a 2016 report by the surgeon general, just 10 percent of Americans with a drug use disorder obtain specialty treatment…attributing the low rate to severe shortages in the supply of care, with some areas of the country lacking affordable options for any treatment — which can lead to waiting periods of weeks or even months.” By then, it is too late for many addicts seeking help.

“Another reason for the treatment gap is a lack of federal attention…the Cures Act committed $1 billion over two years…woefully short of the tens of billions annually that experts argue is necessary to deal with the opioid epidemic…the total economic burden of prescription opioid overdose, misuse, and addiction of $78.5 billion in 2013, about a third of which was due to higher health care and addiction treatment costs.”

I can say that our son desperately wanted to be free of his addiction that started when he was too young to realize the ball and chain that would drag him down and keep him from his hopes and dreams – and eventually take his life. Thankfully, he did have access to some medical help. Incredibly, even after so many relapses, his father and I felt he could beat his addiction without medication – if he just worked harder. We were sadly mistaken.

The Hijacked Brain

I watched an interview on the PBS Newshour the other night with a physician whose young son recently died of a heroin overdose. He has started a foundation to help raise awareness and to bring an end to this deadly epidemic. My husband and I connected with him on so many levels: having a wonderful and brilliant son – who desperately wanted to be free of his addiction – die a needless death; the remorse over not knowing what we could have done differently to help our son; the desire to do something to help others before they are forced to share our pain and grief. In the interview he reiterated the truth that few people understand about opioid addiction: once a person is addicted to opioids, they are truly not normal or themselves any more. The drug has hijacked their brain and they are not capable of thinking normally. They must have the drug at any cost.

This is the reason that there are so few opioid addicts who live long enough to enjoy recovery, as opposed to addicts who use uppers like cocaine or meth. As Tracey Helton Mitchell said in her memoir, The Big Fix: “Heroin kept me chasing my tail, but crack (cocaine) finally sent me into recovery.” Our son’s addiction doctor put it this way: “Most people will build up tolerance to opioids and that tolerance is what leads to addiction. Once addicted, it is only over a long period of time with medication and group therapy (like the 12-Steps) that a person has hope of being free. This is why I call it the cancer of brain diseases’.”

In her article in The Washington Post, December 1st, Dr. Sandra Block (a neurologist) gives further evidence as seen on EEG’s on the changes to the brain that opioids cause:

“Neurologically speaking, opioids are crafty. They turn the brain’s own electricity against it, rewiring connections in an endless feedback loop for more drugs. They trick the brain into a death trap, as users chase the chemical bliss from the drugs with more drugs. Acute opioid usage (that is, the high itself) translates into slowing on the EEG. Usually, such an effect is transient, carefully monitored by an anesthesiologist during surgery, for instance. But when the patient becomes the anesthesiologist, the cycle can become lethal…the opioids overwhelm the brain’s respiratory center, causing cardiac arrest… I’m seeing brain death in people who haven’t lived their lives yet, whose brains haven’t even fully developed, brains that are literally killing themselves for drugs.”

My goal in sharing this information is that it will bring awareness to families and friends – and addicts – about why opioids are so pernicious and that we will begin to see those trapped in the addictive spell as individuals who really do want help. Learning what actual help is, as opposed to enabling the addiction, is a topic for another time.