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Alterations in gastrointestinal motility and secretion underlie the constipating action of therapeutically administered opiates. The prototype opiate is morphine, which acts to delay gastric emptying and intestinal transit, to suppress intestinal secretion of water and electrolytes and to suppress transport of bile into the duodenum. The effects of opiates, synthetic opioids and endogenously released opioid peptides on these organ-level gastrointestinal functions reflect actions on electrical and synaptic behaviour of neurones in the enteric nervous system. Adverse effects and positive therapeutic effects of administration of opioid-receptor-blocking drugs on the digestive tract must be understood in the context of the neurophysiology of the enteric nervous system and mechanisms of neural control of gastrointestinal smooth muscle, secretory glands and blood–lymphatic vasculature. We review here the integrated systems of physiology and cellular neurobiology that are basic to understanding the actions of opioid agonists and antagonists in the digestive tract.