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Is Heroin a Stimulant or a Depressant?

Heroin is a central nervous system depressant. While some drugs have properties that make categorizing them more difficult, opioids (the type of drug that heroin is) are definitively depressants.

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Quick Answer

Heroin is a central nervous system depressant, slowing down brain activity.

One of its most serious depressant effects is how it can slow down a person’s breathing, which can lead to a fatal overdose with heavy drug use. 

It is notable, however, that heroin is also regularly mixed with cutting agents that are used to make selling the drug more profitable and potentially increase its potency and addictiveness. Many of these agents are benign, such as flour, but some can be other drugs, some of which may be stimulants, such as if heroin is cut with caffeine. 

What’s the Difference Between a Stimulant & a Depressant?

The primary difference between stimulants and depressants is how they affect messaging from the brain to other parts of the body. As most people know, the brain is essential to how our body acts both consciously (such as choosing to move your arms) and unconsciously (such as how your heart beats on its own, even while you sleep). This is made possible by rapid signals the brain sends to relevant parts of the body.

Stimulants speed up these messages, causing a variety of effects, including an increased heart rate, faster breathing, higher blood pressure, and appetite suppression. They can make a user feel more energetic and alert, and they often produce a sense of euphoria and confidence. 

They can also cause unwanted manic symptoms, including anxiety and panic. In some cases, they can cause more serious effects, such as seizures, heightened aggression, and illogical paranoia. 

Depressants generally act in an opposite manner, slowing these messages.

Their name is often misunderstood to mean that they cause depression, but this isn’t necessarily accurate. Instead, they depress brain activity.

These drugs can help relieve anxiety and slow abnormal brain activity. They can also reduce a person’s coordination and significantly impair their ability to concentrate and make rational decisions. In extreme cases, they can slow brain activity so severely as to impair critical systems in the body, such as breathing. 

There are drugs in both these categories with legitimate medical uses, but they should generally only be used if prescribed by a doctor. Heroin isn’t one of these drugs. Heroin has virtually no accepted human use in modern medicine and is considered to have significant abuse and addiction potential.

Heroin & Its Depressant Properties

Heroin’s depressant properties, which are generally caused by it slowing down brain function, include the following:

  • Respiratory depression (weakened breathing)
  • Reduced body temperature
  • Temporary drop in blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Lapsing in and out of consciousness and awareness

Repeated use of heroin can cause a person to develop a tolerance to the drug, needing to use more heroin to achieve the same effect. Importantly, this tolerance can fade with abstinence. This is why it’s important if a person relapses after a period of drug abstinence that they don’t immediately return to the level of drug use they engaged in when first trying to recover from their addiction. If they take that same prior dosage, overdose is likely.

Notable Dangers

Heroin has a few notable dangers. One of the most well-known is addiction. Repeated heroin use can easily cause a person to become addicted to the drug, struggling to stop their drug use even if they logically know it is hurting their health and quality of life. 

Heroin use can also cause dependence, something many people who are addicted to heroin develop. This is when the body adapts to heroin use and will go through withdrawal if the person stops using the drug.

More closely related to its depressant properties is the overdose risk associated with heroin use. Heroin can cause life-threatening respiratory depression, especially if mixed with other drugs, such as alcohol or other opioids. In essence, a person’s breathing can become so weak that they can no longer draw in enough air to support their body’s needs. 

Long-term use of heroin or other opioids can also have a serious negative impact on a person’s life and health. They may develop various health issues, including contracting transmittable infections associated with sharing needles, or they may develop fertility problems. They may also struggle to maintain healthy relationships and meet basic responsibilities, such as going to work or school.

Ultimately, heroin addiction can affect virtually every area of life, resulting in extensive issues. Without treatment, severe harm is likely over time, including eventual death via overdose.

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 October 16, 2023
  1. Heroin. (December 2022). Alcohol and Drug Foundation.
  2. Stimulants, Depressants and Hallucinogens. Adis.
  3. Trends in Drug Overdose Deaths Among US Adolescents, January 2010 to June 2021. (April 2022). JAMA.
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