Opiates are a prime example of how something good for you can also be very, very bad. Opiates were initially cultivated for recreational use; the earliest references to opium cultivation is by the Sumerians, who called the poppy the “joy plant.” However, through the years, medicine has taken up development of opiates, and now opiates help millions of people manage short- and long-term pain, including that derived from debilitating illnesses like fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis or cancer. While opiates are undoubtedly abused by millions, who risk their health and life, it is undeniable that opiates are beneficial to many medical efforts.

It is confusing that opiates can have such polar-opposite effects on the human mind and body — so to clear up that confusion and spread clarity and sympathy for those afflicted by the opiate crisis, here’s a look at what opiates are actually doing to you when you take them.

The Brain

Your brain is built with special receptors for natural neurotransmitters produced by the body to feel pain and other emotions. When you take opiates, the drugs bind to these receptors, blocking your natural sensations — especially pain — while stimulating the feeling of well-being, even euphoria. When you are experiencing acute or even chronic pain, opiates are effective at helping you tolerate the discomfort while your body heals.

However, if you abuse opiates, your brain begins to compensate for the sudden inability to detect its typical sensations by inventing pain and discomfort that might not actually exist. This is the cause for the physical dependence: At this point, if you stop taking opiates, you will experience aches and irritation that compel you to return to the substance. Meanwhile, the receptors become less and less sensitive to opiates, requiring you to take more and more to achieve a similar feeling of comfort and happiness. In turn, the negative side effects associated with opiates begin to compound; you become drowsier and more easily confused. Many people who abuse opiates also develop disorders such as anxiety and depression. These are signs of psychological dependence — you start to believe that you need the substance to feel like yourself.

Some studies have indicated that long-term opiate abuse does begin to damage the physical structures of the brain, making it more difficult for new memories to be stored and degrading existing cellular structures, as well. However, often it is the psychological effects of opiate abuse that compel you to continue returning to opiates again and again, and it is typically the psychological addiction that opiate treatment centers help you overcome.

The Body

Substance abuse eventually negatively affects every single cell in your body, but there are three main regions that take major hits during opiate abuse:

The Lungs

Opiates impact your respiratory system nearly as much as they impact your brain. Because opiates are depressants, they cause your heart rate to slow, which in turn causes you to breathe more shallowly and less frequently. If you take too many opiates, your breathing can stop altogether — resulting in your death. However, even if you don’t die, this slow breathing rate is dangerous to the health of your lungs. If your body isn’t getting enough oxygen, cells start to die, and the first to go are those around your heart and lungs, which are particularly oxygen-hungry. Lungs are among the most delicate organs in your body — and among the most crucial — so when they go, you go.

The Liver

The liver is tasked with filtering bad stuff out of the blood, so it doesn’t reach the rest of the body. Small doses of opiates used responsibly won’t cause liver damage, but when you barrage your body with opiates on a regular basis, you are forcing your liver to work overtime to remove toxins before they poison more delicate cells throughout your body. This is especially true if you combine opiates with alcohol, acetaminophen, trans fats or other liver-destroying compounds. If you continue harming your liver in this way, you could cause liver failure, which floods your body with toxins and results in other critical systems to shut down.

The Digestive System

The brain isn’t the only part of your body that has receptors for opiates; the digestive system is laden with them to, meaning opiates have an immediate and severe impact on how your body manages food. Typically, opiates slow your digestion almost to a halt, which as you might expect, isn’t ideal. What results is nausea, constipation, bloating and cramping, all of which enhances discomfort and compels more opiate use. Over time, digestion can become so poor that bowels become blocked and even perforated, which necessitates immediate hospitalization and can result in death.

Unlike other drugs, opiates have clear medical applications — but the ongoing opiate crisis indicates that even within medical spheres, opiates are being abused, to the severe detriment of users’ minds and bodies. If you are suffering from opiate abuse, you need to get help, now, before you suffer the worst that opiates offer.