In this article, I’m going to answer the common question Is Subutex an opioid? I was totally astonished when I worked as a counselor at an Opiate Treatment Program (OTP) and despite lots of people working there, the receptionists directed EVERY call about Subutex to me.
The other counselors and even the Clinical Director (CD) and Clinical Supervisor (CS) unfortunately didn’t even know how to describe Subutex to people that called who were interested in signing up for treatment.
So I graciously took all the calls about Subutex and would explain in simple terms what Subutex is, how it works, and why it helps so many people.
It’s been about five years since I left the counseling profession and just under four years since I started this Blog and became an Opiate Recovery Coach, and I still notice there’s a LOT of confusion about this topic of what Subutex really is.
Is Subutex an opioid?
The short answer is “yes.”
But it’s a lot more complicated than that, and I want to set the record straight and provide you with a detailed yet easy-to-comprehend overview of Subutex’s opioid properties.
Thus, if you’re ready to learn why Subutex is an opioid and exactly what it’s created from (which is very interesting!), then continue to read on, as we explore this fascinating medication that has helped countless individuals over the past 15+ years…
Is Subutex an Opioid? Subutex Overview
Is Subutex an opioid? As I stated earlier, the short answer is yes, but now we’re going to dive deeper into this topic. I’ll do my best to keep the explanations simple and I’ll also provide visual aids and bullet-point lists to help you comprehend the concepts. I’m a visual learner and you may be one too.
Subutex is a brand name for the drug buprenorphine.
Buprenorphine is a controlled substance and semi-synthetic opioid. Buprenorphine attaches and binds to the same opioid receptors in the brain and other parts of the body that drugs like heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and other opioids bind to.
Once it attaches to these opioid receptors, buprenorphine mimics the effects the drugs I just mentioned produce (though it’s not as powerful).
For this reason, buprenorphine is referred to as a “partial opioid agonist.”
Here is the biochemistry definition of the word agonist: “A substance that initiates a physiological response when combined with a receptor.”
The other opioid drugs I just mentioned are known as “full opioid agonists,” because they activate the opioid receptors in a stronger and more complete way than buprenorphine. See the illustration below.
Is Subutex an Opioid? Types of Opioids
Is Subutex a real opioid or not? The following definition of “opioid” along with a bullet-point breakdown of the broad classes of opioids should solidify your understanding of this concept.
An opioid is any agent that binds to opioid receptors (protein molecules located on the membranes of some nerve cells) found principally in the central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract and elicits a response.
There are four broad classes of opioids:
- Endogenous opioid, naturally produced in the body, endorphins
- Opium alkaloids, such as morphine and codeine (which are naturally occurring from the opium poppy plant)
- Semi-synthetic opioids such as heroin, oxycodone, and buprenorphine
- Fully synthetic opioids, such as methadone, that have structures unrelated to the opium alkaloids
As you can see in the bullet-point list above, buprenorphine is an opioid in the specific category of “semi-synthetic opioids.”
Here is the definition of the term semi-synthetic: “(of a substance) made by synthesis from a naturally occurring material.”
So to sum things up, buprenorphine is not a naturally occurring opiate such as morphine and codeine which are both present in the opium poppy plant. However, buprenorphine is a drug created by scientists that used some of the natural alkaloids present in the opium poppy. Buprenorphine is a semi-synthetic analogue of thebaine.
Thebaine, also known as “codeine methyl enol ether,” is an opiate alkaloid which is a minor constituent of opium. Thebaine is chemically similar to both morphine and codeine but has stimulatory rather than depressant effects, which could be a reason why so many people report getting energy from Subutex.
While thebaine is not used therapeutically, it is the main alkaloid extracted from Papaver bracteatum (Iranian poppy) and can be converted industrially into a variety of compounds, including oxycodone, oxymorphone, and yes…buprenorphine.
Is Subutex an Opioid? Putting it all Together
You now have my full permission to consider and refer to yourself as an expert on Subutex! And you certainly know the answer to the question “is Subutex an opioid?”
Here’s a helpful checklist review of the key concepts of this topic:
- Subutex itself is not an opioid as it’s merely a brand name product containing buprenorphine.
- Buprenorphine is, in fact, an opioid, and since it’s the drug in Subutex, many people are comfortable just saying “Subutex is an opioid,” which is totally fine.
- Technically, buprenorphine is a semi-synthetic opioid which is a derivative of thebaine.
- Thebaine is chemically similar to morphine and codeine, and all three of these opiate alkaloids occur naturally in the opium poppy plant.
- Thebaine is converted industrially into a variety of compounds, including oxycodone, oxymorphone, and buprenorphine.
- Buprenorphine is considered a sustained-action (aka long-acting) opioid because the effects come on very slowly (slow onset), and the buprenorphine wears off very slowly as well (slow offset), making it an ideal Opiate Replacement Medication for Medication-Assisted Treatment of opioid use disorder and opioid dependence.
- However, since buprenorphine is an opioid, this means that while the user gets temporary relief while taking Subutex, getting off the medication can be very hard since it’s still an opioid, and a powerful one at that.
Is Subutex an opioid? The short answer is yes. And now you know the looooooooong answer as well.
If you want to learn more about this topic, I encourage you to check out this article: Difference Between Opioid and Opiate: The Best Definition You’ll Ever Read.
Additionally, if you’re interested in learning more about opiate addiction and recovery, make sure you check out the Opiate Addiction Support Online Course Collection, which has some free courses that you’ll totally LOVE.
If you have any comments or questions on the topic of Is Subutex an opioid, please post them in the comment box below.