Natural opioids, or opiates, are a class of pain relief medications that derive from the opium poppy. They help relieve painful sensations by preventing pain signals from the body to the brain.

Opioids bind to the brain’s opioid receptors, resulting in pain relief, drowsiness, a sense of euphoria, and other psychoactive effects. They come in both synthetic and natural forms. All opioids are highly addictive, so a person should only take them as a doctor prescribes.

This article will explore what natural opioids are, some examples of them, and other types of opioids. It also discusses alternatives to opioids for managing pain and when to speak with a doctor.

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Natural opioids, which people also call opiates, derive from the opium poppy. They are present in the poppy’s latex, which is the milky resin that comes out of the plant’s seed pod when a person cuts it.

Opioids work as pain relief medications by attaching themselves to opioid receptors in the large intestine, spinal cord, brain, and other areas of the body. This helps prevent a person’s brain from receiving pain signals from their body.

People make synthetic and semisynthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and oxycodone, in a lab to be stronger and more potent. However, natural opioids still bind to the same receptors, have the same side effects, and pose the same risks. The word “natural” does not imply that these forms are safer or better.

However, opioids have numerous clinical effects. Other effects that research associates with opiate analgesia, which is the term doctors may use to describe pain relief, include:

The most distinctive feature of opioid-induced analgesia is lack of consciousness. For this reason, people have historically used opioids as a surgical anesthetic.

Individuals should note that opioids do not treat the cause of pain but instead lower the brain’s perception of pain.

Examples of natural opioids include opium, morphine, and codeine.


Opium is the substance people harvest directly from the opium poppy. In ancient civilizations, individuals used it to relieve pain and treat various health conditions.

Typically, people harvest opium using the poppy straw process. This method involves extracting alkaloids, which are organic compounds present in dried crushed poppy plants. Examples of alkaloids include codeine and morphine.

Opium has a long history of recreational use. As with other substances people use recreationally, misuse of opium may lead to health problems, particularly those affecting the central nervous system. These issues can include atypical changes in the brain.


Morphine has existed in its pure form since the early 19th century, when Austrian scientist Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Sertürner first isolated it from the juice of poppy seeds.

Many doctors continue to prescribe morphine for pain relief today. The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists it as a common prescription opioid.


Codeine is another opioid that scientists were first able to isolate in the 19th century. While manufacturers can extract codeine directly from opium, they may also make it from morphine.

Alongside morphine, it is one of the most common prescription opioids.

Other types of opioids include synthetic and semisynthetic opioids, such as:

In contrast to natural opioids, synthetic opioids derive from chemicals that people make in laboratories.

There are many reasons a person may wish to find an alternative to opioids. An individual may not respond well to opioid medication or have concerns about developing a dependence on them.

If someone has concerns about taking opioids to manage chronic pain, they can talk with a doctor about any concerns they have. A healthcare professional may be able to recommend and prescribe alternative pain medications such as:

People who use opioids have a risk of developing dependence and addiction. This means that if someone uses opioids over a longer period or takes them in any way other than as a doctor prescribes them, they have a higher chance of developing opioid use disorder (OUD).

Symptoms of OUD may include:

  • depending on opioids to feel happy or to function as usual
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms if they discontinue opioid use, which may include:
  • continuing to use opioids despite negative effects on a person’s work or social life, for example
  • prioritizing opioid use over other activities or responsibilities
  • putting themselves in danger of procuring opioids

Risks and complications of OUD include overdose, which can be fatal.

Help is available

Seeking help for addiction may feel daunting or even scary, but several organizations can provide support.

If you believe that you or someone close to you is showing signs of addiction, you can contact the following organizations for immediate help and advice:

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Natural opioids, or opiates, include substances such as morphine or codeine, which derive from the plant matter of the opium poppy.

Many people use opioids to manage pain. However, due to their potential for dependence and misuse, some individuals may wish to try alternative pain medications.

Anyone with concerns that they or a loved one may be developing OUD should speak with a doctor. A healthcare professional can offer support, create a treatment plan, and prescribe alternative medications if necessary.