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Heroin Chemical Formula & Drug Profile

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Nov 22, 2023 • 6 cited sources

Heroin dealers rarely tell their customers what’s inside the doses they sell. You may have no idea what your dose is made of, where it was distilled and how it might change your body. 

But understanding heroin at a molecular level is critical. If you or someone you know is using the drug, this information could help you choose sobriety instead. 

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug, closely related to prescription painkillers like Vicodin and oxycodone. But unlike these medications, heroin is an illicit substance. No doctor can prescribe heroin, and you can’t pick it up at a pharmacy. 

Seed pods of opium poppy plants contain the raw ingredients that eventually become heroin.[1] The sticky sap inside these pods contains morphine, which is a natural painkiller. 

People used morphine and its derivatives for decades, but heroin didn’t boom in popularity until the 1800s. A chemist inadvertently altered morphine and created heroin. 

In tests, doctors discovered that this drug was remarkably effective in reducing discomfort, and they started adding it to all sorts of teas, powders, pills, and injections. Only later did they discover that this painkiller came with a dark side.[2]

Heroin Chemical Formula & Structure 

Heroin’s chemical formula is C21H23NO5. The drug is sometimes called a natural drug because it derives from poppy sap. Chemists consider it a semi-synthetic drug, as the morphine from plants must be manipulated and altered to make heroin.[3] 

Raw opium from plants contains more than 35 chemicals. Manufacturers must start by extracting morphine from their raw materials. They dissolve opium in hot water and use lime to trigger chemical reactions that remove morphine from the solution.[4] Then, more chemicals alter morphine to create heroin. 

Once heroin enters your body, the process works in reverse. Chemical reactions within your system change heroin to 6-monoacetylmorphine (6-MAM), and finally, to heroin.[5]

Heroin’s Metabolism 

Once heroin enters your body, several chemical reactions begin. Each one creates a byproduct, or metabolite. Understanding how they work can mean gaining a deeper respect for the challenges people face when they try to quit using it. 

Metabolites like polyunsaturated fatty acids, glucose and pyruvic acid are critical to normal functioning. Researchers say levels of these chemicals remain altered when people try to quit heroin. 

That tiny change can result in the following problems:[6]

  • Depression 
  • Anxiety 
  • Reduced productivity 
  • Poor metabolism
  • Low energy levels 

Researchers say these problems can persist for long periods. In some studies, metabolites remained very low for months after people quit using heroin.[6]

Impact of Heroin

A low mood, lack of energy and reduced productivity could impair your ability to work, participate in therapy and communicate with your family. You may be sober, but you may not feel like yourself. 

It’s not clear why heroin can change brain function so profoundly. But this research suggests that people who use heroin for long periods change their brains dramatically. As much as they might want to quit using it, they may be physically and mentally unable to do so. 

How to Recover From Heroin Addiction

Willpower alone is not enough to help people overcome a heroin addiction or any opioid use disorder. Your brain cells are altered and malfunctioning. That damage can leave you craving heroin and spark a relapse. 

Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) programs begin with the premise that drugs cause intense changes and therapy must address the chemical imbalance. Medications like Suboxone can help you to achieve recovery.

Suboxone is a weak opioid agonist, capable of latching to receptors used by heroin. You won’t feel high, but your withdrawal symptoms and cravings may weaken or stop altogether. Addressing chemical imbalances caused by drugs can have a substantial impact on your ability to get sober. 

Some people use MAT to help them move past withdrawal, but many people need longer treatment periods. 

Experts say there’s no maximum recommended MAT length. Some people need medications indefinitely to stay sober.[7]

MAT With Bicycle Health

While MAT is remarkably effective, it’s not always easy to access these life-saving medications. Bicycle Health is different. 

Our telemedicine model means we come to you via your phone or computer. You can access this care no matter where you live. You’ll meet with an expert to assess your heroin use, your health and your goals for recovery. If you’re a good candidate for Suboxone, you can often pick up your prescription at a pharmacy near you the same day. 

If you’ve been struggling with heroin addiction, contact us at Bicycle Health to see if this model is right for you. We’d love to help. 

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. Heroin drug facts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published December 2022. Accessed October 29, 2023.
  2. 2. Hosztafi S. A heroin története [The history of heroin]. Acta Pharmaceutica Hungarica. 2001;71(2):233-242.
  3. 3. Heroin drug profile. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Accessed October 29, 2023. 
  4. 4. Opium poppy cultivation and heroin processing in Southeast Asia. U.S. Department of Justice. Published September 1992. Accessed October 29, 2023.
  5. 5. Milella MS, D’Ottavio G, De Pirro S, Barra M, Caprioli D, Badiani A. Heroin and its metabolites: relevance to heroin use disorder. Translational Psychiatry. 2023;13(1):120. Published April 8, 2023. 
  6. 6. Zhou Y, Xie Z, Zhang Z, et al. Plasma metabolites changes in male heroin addicts during acute and protracted withdrawal. Aging (Albany NY). 2021;13(14):18669-18688. 
    7. Information about medication-assisted treatment (MAT). U.S Food and Drug Administration. Published May 23, 2023. Accessed October 29, 2023.

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