Get Help Today. (800) 516-4357

Is Heroin a Depressant or Stimulant?

Heroin is an illegal substance that is depressant in nature. It causes a sedative effect in users that can make it difficult for them to function or hold a conversation. 

Struggling with Heroin Addiction? Get Help Now

Heroin is a strong opioid drug derived from the poppy plant, like opium and morphine. Classified as a Schedule I substance, heroin is not used medically in the United States. It is considered highly addictive.[1]

Because heroin is an opioid, its mechanism in the body starts when the substance binds to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord. This action minimizes the perception of pain and triggers a feeling of euphoria in the sense of sedation.[1]

The sedative nature of the drug is why it is classified as a depressant.[2] Depressants slow down the activity in the central nervous system, causing heart rate to decrease and breathing rate to slow. 

This action is what makes heroin so deadly. Too much of the drug can slow down the breathing rate until it stops entirely, causing an opioid overdose that can be fatal without prompt medical treatment.

Is Heroin Considered a Depressant?

Yes. Heroin is a depressant drug because of the way that it subdues the central nervous system, slowing down the body’s processes and lowering the body’s temperature.[3] This is the opposite of how a stimulant drug behaves in the body.

What Is a Depressant Drug?

The hallmark of drugs that are classified as depressants is their ability to slow down the central nervous system. Medically, prescription depressants are used for this purpose in situations where a sedative effect is needed. 

Stimulants, on the other hand, provoke the opposite effect in the body, causing the heart to race, blood pressure to increase, and body temperature to rise. Stimulant drugs work by binding to the dopamine transmitters in the brain and spinal cord. They “stimulate” the systems to work harder and faster and release a large amount of dopamine that creates the high.[4] 

Hallucinogens, depending on how much is taken and what it is cut with, may have either a depressant or stimulant effect and vary in their internal mechanism. However, they will usually cause a psychedelic response, triggering visual and auditory hallucinations. Hallucinogens are generally classified as a Schedule I drug, because there is no medical use for these substances. 

How Is a Depressant Different Than a Stimulant?

These lists outline how depressants and stimulants differ:[1,3]


  • Binds to opioid receptors in the brain
  • Slows down central nervous system activity
  • Lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature
  • Can cause respiratory system to shut down


  • Binds to dopamine transmitters
  • Increases central nervous system activity
  • Increases blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature
  • Can trigger a cardiovascular event

How Heroin Is Different

Heroin is never used medically in the United States despite its sedative qualities. It is an unregulated substance sold in varying potencies on the street and not a viable option for medical use. 

Taking heroin in any form is always dangerous. It is impossible to know how strong it will be or what it is cut with until it is too late. It can also harbor bacteria and cause infection or disease, especially if the drug is injected.[5]

What Does a Depressant Drug Do?

Depressant drugs like heroin can cause both short-term and long-term effects.

Short Term Effects of Depressants 

Within 20 minutes to an hour of taking a depressant drug, the short-term effects on the body and mind begin. They may include the following:[6]

  • Sedation
  • Euphoria, or a high
  • Decreased anxiety or agitation 
  • Impaired coordination or motor function
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Slowed breathing and heart rate
  • Nausea and vomiting 

It’s important to note that not everyone will experience the same short-term effects when taking depressants. Quite a few factors come into play in terms of how and when someone will experience effects after taking a depressant.

Long-Term Effects of Depressants 

Ongoing and consistent use of depressant drugs can cause a range of health problems that are both physical and mental in nature. Depending on a variety of factors (such as the specific depressant used, how much, and for how long), some of those long-term effects can include the following.[7-9]

  • Cognitive impairment: One of the short-term effects of depressant use is loss of short term memory. Repeated use can cause that effect to continue into everyday life, making it hard to make decisions, solve problems, and maintain mental clarity.
  • Mental health issues: Though many people start taking depressant drugs as a means of coping with mental health symptoms like depression and anxiety, long-term use of these substances can make symptoms worse over time, especially if addiction sets in.
  • Physical health problems: Physical dependence can mean that withdrawal symptoms kick in when without the drug, and these symptoms can be severe and even life threatening. Other physical health issues may include damage to systems in the body, including effects on the cardiovascular system, respiratory function, and the liver.
  • Addiction: Physical dependence is common for anyone who consistently takes any amount of a depressant drug, but if the user begins to crave more of the substance, grow agitated without it, or otherwise feels that they cannot function if they don’t have more of the drug, addiction has set in. This is a life-changing disorder.

For those who have co-occurring mental health disorders, who are taking larger or more frequent doses of depressants, or who are mixing depressants with other illicit substances, the long-term effects may manifest more quickly. 

Are Depressant Drugs Like Heroin Addictive?

Yes, depressant drugs like heroin are exceptionally addictive. Many people have an immediate psychological dependence on the high they experience while under the influence of the drug.[10] As a result, they put all their focus and energy into getting and staying high. 

Regular use of heroin will lead to a physical dependence. When psychological cravings develop, it’s a clear sign of active addiction.[10]

Depending on the nature of the addiction, treatment for depressant addiction can include medication management, behavioral therapies, mental health treatment, and additional forms of support. 

Treatment for Heroin Addiction

Heroin is an opioid, and there are a number of medications that have been proven to be effective in the treatment of opioid addiction, including methadone and Suboxone.[11] For many, taking advantage of these medications is the only way to safely navigate the detox process and get on a sustained path to recovery. 

But treatment doesn’t end with medication. In fact, it’s just a small part of a comprehensive treatment program. In most cases, medication is only successful when paired with behavioral therapy that takes place in a comprehensive treatment program for heroin abuse

Navigating heroin detox and recovery without help is unlikely to be successful. Instead, it is recommended to work with an addiction treatment program, like what we offer here at Boca Recovery Center. We can give you the personalized support needed to make it out of heroin addiction and into recovery. 

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated March 19, 2024
  1. Overview. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published June 2018. Accessed February 6, 2024.
  2. Heroin. Better Health Channel. Published 2015. Accessed February 6, 2024.
  3. Commonly used drugs charts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published August 20, 2020. Accessed February 6, 2024.
  4. Psychostimulants affect dopamine transmission through both dopamine transporter-dependent and independent mechanisms. dela Peña I, Gevorkiana R, Shi WX. European Journal of Pharmacology. 2015;764:562-570.
  5. Infectious diseases, opioids and injection drug use in persons who inject drugs. Centers for Disease Control. Published December 10, 2019. Accessed February 6, 2024.
  6. Depressants: What are depressants? Drug Enforcement Administration. Published 2020. Accessed February 6, 2024.
  7. The connection between substance use disorders and mental illness. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published 2020. Accessed February 6, 2024.
  8. Dependence, withdrawal and rebound of CNS drugs: an update and regulatory considerations for new drugs development. Lerner A, Klein M. Brain Communications. 2019;1(1).
  9. Understanding drug use and addiction drug facts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published June 6, 2018. Accessed February 6, 2024.
  10. Drug dependence is not addiction—and it matters. Szalavitz M, Rigg KK, Wakeman SE. Annals of Medicine. 2021;53(1):1989-1992.
  11. Buprenorphine vs methadone treatment: A review of evidence in both developed and developing worlds. Whelan PJ, Remski K. Journal of Neurosciences in Rural Practice. 2012;3(1):45.
Take The Next Step Now
Call Us Now Check Insurance