Overcoming Addiction: The Opioid Epidemic

August 30, 2019

"More that 70% of the over 70,000 drug overdose deaths in the last year involved an opioid."

Today’s show concludes Dr. Nancy's series on addiction with a show on one of the most heartbreaking and significant epidemics ever seen across the U.S. — the opioid epidemic. Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD, will go over what opioids are, the history behind the epidemic, and how addiction to prescription medications occurs, as well as some important steps to overcoming addiction. Don't miss this important installment in the series on getting free from addiction. 

Video Highlights

  • 00:45: The Opioid Epidemic
  • 08:27: What is an Opioid?
  • 10:59: How Opiod Addiction Happens
  • 13:14: Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Addiction
  • 16:22: Dealing with Chronic Pain
  • 22:39: Anti-Inflammatory Diet
  • 30:01: Body Movement
  • 33:36: Breaking the Cycle of Addiction
  • 37:16: Wrap-Up 

The Opioid Epidemic

If you’ve been watching the news this week, the tide is turning Big Pharma — the opioid makers that fueled the epidemic by hiding the addictive nature of these products. On Monday, an Oklahoma judge held Johnson & Johnson liable and fined them a whopping $572 million, but that was small potatoes compared to what happened on Tuesday when lawyers for Purdue Pharma and its owners, the people that brought us Oxycontin, offered to settle more than 2,000 lawsuits against the company for $10 billion to $12 billion. And this may just be the tip of the iceberg, as there are many thousand more cases pending.

There is so much important information to cover on this topic, because we know many of you are in pain and may have had your own run with opioids, or other prescriptions. The statistics are startling. Let’s talk about a few of these facts that may help the scope and magnitude of the opioid epidemic in perspective. 

The first thing to point out is that we have not yet found a way to slow the epidemic down and drug overdose deaths continue to increase in the United States. The politicians have done nothing, and certainly simply arresting addicts is not a solution. Let’s look at the numbers.

  • More that 70% of the over 70,000 drug overdose deaths in the last year involved an opioid.
  • Last year, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids was 6 times higher than in 1999.
  • In the last year alone, emergency room visits for opioid overdoses increased by over 30%.
  • Perhaps most alarming, on average 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

So, you can see that this is a national problem that affects every race, religion, family, and socioeconomic status in the country. The opioid epidemic truly does not discriminate — and what is most concerning is that the start of this epidemic can be directly traced back to both pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals together putting their pursuit of financial gains ahead of the health and wellbeing of their patients. 

Consider this:

  • 4 out of every 10 adults living in the U.S. used some kind of prescription opioid drug at least once within the previous 12 months.
  • 63% of people who have been prescribed opioid drugs, usually for the treatment of chronic pain, report misusing them.
  • Prescription opiate painkillers are now responsible for 1.9 million Americans being addicted to drugs — more than the number of adults who are addicted to cocaine and heroin combined.
  • Over a six-year period, America’s largest drug companies saturated this country with 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills from 2006 through 2012. That is enough opioids to give every man, woman, and child in the country 36 prescription pain pills each year!

Opiate addiction has been “America’s fastest-growing drug problem” and the problem has gotten so bad that the prescription opioid epidemic has now become the leading cause of death among adults under 50 years old living in the U.S.

Here are some frequent questions people ask about opioids, which we’ll endeavor to answer:

  1. What actually is an opioid?
  2. How do people become addicted to medication prescribed to them by their doctors? 
  3. What are the signs that you or someone you love could be developing an opioid addiction?

What is an Opioid?

Opioids are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Some prescription opioids are made from the plant directly, and others are made by scientists in labs using the same chemical structure. Opioids are often used as medicines because they contain chemicals that relax the body and can relieve pain.

What makes opioids so dangerous is that they bind to receptors in the brain or body, which allows your body to become physically addicted over a very, very short amount of time.

You also might know opioids by their generic or brand names, including:

  • Oxycodone or OxyContin
  • Hydrocodone or Vicodin
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl — which, by the way is the most powerful prescription painkiller on the market today. It’s actually estimated to be over 100 times more potent than morphine.

But what’s really dangerous about these drugs is that in addition to being physically addicting, opioids affect the chemical pathway in your brain known as your dopamine pathway, which causes increases in pleasure, good feelings, and a temporary sense of well-being. In fact the drug actually prevents your body from making and releasing endorphins and dopamine (hormones associated with pleasure and feeling good) forcing the person to seek opioids to feel good and to reduce pain. This makes addiction incredibly easy.

How Opioid Addiction Happens

For many, opioid addiction starts off innocently enough by taking an opioid legally prescribed by a doctor as a way to prevent pain from a chronic injury or while recovering from surgery or a medical procedure.

Over a short period of time, and if not used very, very carefully and under the direct supervision of a medical professional, the body can quickly become physically addicted to the opioid; and when the initial prescription runs out, the addiction often drives the person to move on to illegal drugs, including heroin, or buying prescription medication illegally, or “doctor shopping” — going from doctor to doctor until you find a doctor who will prescribe an opioid.

Obviously, as we discussed over the course of this series, addiction — whether it is to drugs, alcohol, or even tobacco — involves several factors, including genetics, upbringing, and current environment, with a genetic predisposition to addiction being the most influential factor.

Considering these factors and studying opioid addiction, researchers have found patients demonstrating certain characteristics to be at a higher risk for opioid abuse and addiction, these factors include being a young age, having back pain, suffering from chronic pain, and having a family history of substance abuse.

Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Addiction

If you’ve watched our previous shows in the addiction series, you know that addiction is a complex condition; it’s actually a brain disease that is characterized by excessive and compulsive use of something, even though there are known harmful consequences from its use. People who struggle with addiction have an intense focus on using something — for some it’s alcohol or tobacco, for others it’s gambling or food, and in this case, prescription pain pills, which are the most addictive of all.

It’s important to point out that people aren’t addicted the first time they take a drink, nor do they become physically or psychologically addicted after taking one prescription pill. Addiction is actually a process that starts with initially using the drug, then develops as you build a tolerance — meaning that you would need more of the drug to achieve the same result. As this progresses, you can become dependent on the drug, meaning your body has adapted so that it only functions “normally” with the drug in your system, which then results in addiction — or the compulsive use of the drug.

The first step toward breaking the cycle of opioid addiction is realizing that you have a problem and might be addicted to prescription medication. The signs and symptoms of substance abuse can be physical, behavioral, and psychological. One clear sign of addiction to anything is not being able to stop using it. It is also not being able to stop yourself from using more than the recommended amount.

Other signs and symptoms of opioid abuse include impaired coordination, drowsiness, poor decision-making, mood swings, sleeping more than normal, irritability, depression, anxiety, and bouts of low energy or lack of motivation.

Dealing with Chronic Pain

Before we talk about ways to help treat this dangerous and potentially deadly addiction, let’s take a minute to talk about one of the most common, but often overlooked, root causes of addiction to prescription pain medication — chronic pain.

We know that most people are prescribed opioids for chronic pain issues, but very rarely do we hear medical experts talking about fixing or addressing the root causes of chronic pain as a way to prevent eventual addiction to opioids.

Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts at least 12 weeks. The pain may feel sharp or dull, causing a burning or aching sensation in the affected areas. It may be steady or intermittent, coming and going without any apparent reason and chronic pain can occur in nearly any part of your body.

The four most common chronic pain conditions seen in America are:

#4 - Chronic Back Pain
#3 - Chronic Headaches
#2 - Chronic Nerve Pain
And the #1 Most Common Chronic Pain Condition: Chronic Joint Pain
Joint pain is one of the leading types of chronic pain among American adults with arthritis the most common cause, affecting over 50 million Americans. And, of course, chronic inflammation is one of the most common contributors to Arthritis.
This is one of the reasons we talk so much about reducing inflammation. The most well known contributors to chronic inflammation are poor diet, lack of exercise, stress, food allergens, and environmental toxins. The good news is all of these causes can be reversed through simple changes to your diet and lifestyle. 

Reducing your chronic inflammation levels is, in our opinion, priority # 1, and the most important step for preventing chronic pain or any chronic health condition for that matter!

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Diet is essential here. We always go back to Dr. Nancy’s go-to anti-inflammatory foods, including:

  • Salmon
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Organic blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables, like kale, spinach, Swiss chard, and bok choy
  • Red cabbage, beets, sweet potatoes, and carrots
  • Citrus fruits, including oranges, lemons, and grapefruits
  • Avocados, walnuts, brazil nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds

Make sure you are staying hydrated too, keeping in mind that our bodies are 70% water. The more water the better; in addition to helping every cell function properly, staying hydrated helps us flush harmful chemicals and toxins from your body.

You can also supplement with a number of natural anti-inflammatory resources that have long been shown to reduce inflammation in your body, such as:

Omega-3 fatty acids. You can get your omega 3s from food sources, like salmon, walnuts, and avocados, but you can also take a supplement to ensure you are getting a constant and regular dose. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown in numerous studies to decrease system-wide inflammation making them helpful to a wide range of health concerns, especially ones with inflammation at the root.

Bromelain, which is naturally found in pineapple. Bromelain supplements provide a powerful enzyme that has been shown over and over to reduce swelling and inflammation in the body.

Turmeric. Turmeric is actually a spice, but is also available in supplement form, and it contains a ultra-powerful component called curcumin, which is known for its ability to fight inflammation. If you’re new to curcumin, it is the concentrated active ingredient inside in turmeric. It’s only about 2-3% of the turmeric root, but when formulated properly it can have an amazing effect on your body. In fact, it’s a whopping 250 times more potent an inflammation-fighter than Turmeric itself. A large part of the inflammation-fighting effect of curcumin comes from is its ability to inhibit key enzymes in the body known to promote inflammation. So if you’re looking for a good curcumin supplement, make sure it’s curcumin extract (not turmeric) and contains the right support ingredients to make sure it can get into your body. 

Body Movement

Other things you can do include being active. Frequent movement, even short walks, along with targeted exercises to work inflamed areas have also been shown to really reduce chronic pain and decrease recovery times.

Speaking of exercise, stretching and strengthening the muscles and joints in your problem areas are also essential for the treatment and prevention of chronic pain

Yoga also helps your body in so many ways, and dealing with chronic pain is no exception. Lengthening the spine and strengthening your core through stretching and yoga helps to improve your posture while strengthening muscles, and reducing stiffness, inflammation, and pain.

Studies have also found that yoga is safe and effective for people with chronic pain. Some of the most important movements for preventing chronic pain target the low back, building strength and relaxing stiff muscles and joints. Exercises to prevent joint pain and strengthen the core are also very commonly used in medical rehabilitation settings and following surgery.

So if you do have chronic pain, then make sure you are treating the root cause of that pain. Addressing that may help avoid jumping to a prescription pain medication that can potentially be addicting and have unfortunate life-altering long-term consequences.

Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

So, back to the issue at hand: how do we break the cycle of addiction, and what we can do if we or a loved one are addicted to prescription pain medication.  

As always, we want to point out that the tips and recommendations we’re going to share are those that Dr. Nancy has found helpful while working with her clients, so while we do want you to pay attention to them and apply them to your own life, we also want you to recognize that you could have an addiction issue that requires the help and support of a medical professional. And to be honest, most people who are addicted to opioids do need professional intervention and support. If you think that’s you, don’t wait! Reach out and get the help and support you need and deserve now!

In addition to seeking out professional support, professionals also recommend the following: 

  • Stop using prescription pain medication as soon as possible, but do not go cold turkey.  You are going to experience severe withdrawal symptoms during the process, and very rarely does quitting cold turkey work. You need to wean your body of the physical dependence created during your addiction. We recommend seeking help from a therapist, your doctor, or even an outpatient treatment center to help with the difficult process of withdrawal.
  • Speaking of outpatient treatment, we recommend that you find a recovery program that works for your specific needs — these programs can help you with the detox and withdrawal process, and set you up for success with a treatment and support program that provides you with the steps you need to successfully break your addiction.
  • During the process, you are also going to need to find healthy alternatives to opioids that will help with stress and anxiety — again yoga, exercise, deep breathing, and counseling are all effective tools you have available.
  • And remember, if chronic pain led you down this path of addiction, talk to your doctor about alternative treatment options, and look for ways to treat and manage your pain issues naturally and without opioids.

If you are dealing with opioid addiction, then regardless of which path you take towards recovery, make sure you take excellent care of yourself — you and your family deserve having you be the best version of you! 

Wrap-Up

Today, we discussed opioid and prescription medication addiction, what that entails, treatment options that are available, how the process of addiction occurs, and we shared some recommendations for supporting your treatment and recovery journey. We also discussed the staggering numbers surrounding the opioid crisis and talked about several important cultural and social aspects leading up to this current epidemic.

We also talked about several ways to address chronic pain, which for many is the root cause of opioid use, and eventually opioid addiction.  Chronic pain is often brought on by chronic inflammation in the body, which leads to chronic back pain, headaches, nerve pain, and joint pain.  Eliminating inflammation by following the anti-inflammatory diet plan, exercising, and supplementing with curcumin, the powerful inflammatory-fighting component of turmeric, are the first steps to preventing chronic and debilitating chronic health issues, including chronic pain.

We hope you found today’s show informative and helpful.  Please take a second to share this information with your friends and family, and remember, the time to start addressing addiction is now.

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