Addiction Among Women
While men are more likely than women to misuse drugs and alcohol and become dependent on them, women face unique challenges related to substance abuse and addiction. Biological differences between the sexes, as well as gender variations related to environmental and social pressures, are involved in drug use initiation and the onset of addiction.
Addiction affects the lives of everyone impacted by the disorder. However, understanding the different impacts of addiction between men and women will help you get the right addiction treatment for you.
Gender and Sex Differences Related to Substance Use Disorders
Addiction is a chronic disorder resulting from a complex interaction between genetics, the environment, and a person’s life experiences. This disorder involves both brain chemistry and behavioral aspects, and can make it incredibly difficult for someone to stop using substances, despite the negative consequences to his or her life, and a strong desire to stop using.
Substance use disorders — the clinical term for addiction — affect men and women without discrimination. However, physical dependence may set in quicker for a woman than a man and is related to changes made to levels of neurotransmitters in the brain that are involved with impulse control, learning, reward processing, emotional regulation, and memory functions.
Women are just as susceptible to addiction as men, but may progress sooner through the stages of substance misuse to dependence to addiction than men may, and may suffer from more intense cravings and higher rates of relapse than men, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports.
The Impact of Sex and Gender on Addiction
One explanation for the differing presentation of addiction may be due to differences related to a person’s sex-related biological variations. A woman’s sex hormones and menstrual cycle may change the way her body responds to substances. Drugs and alcohol can have more physical effects on the heart and blood vessels of women, and women may experience changes in the brain differently than men do. This may play a role in why a woman may use less of a drug at a time, and for a shorter time period, than a man and become dependent more quickly.
Gender refers to roles that are culturally defined for the sexes, and it can influence the way a person will use drugs and suffer from drug addiction. Women often use drugs for different reasons than men do. For example, a woman may be more likely to use drugs to control pain, lose weight, fight exhaustion, and self-medicate mental health issues, NIDA publishes. Women may also abuse drugs as a method of alleviating stress or minimizing negative emotions.
Other factors that can impact the difference in substance abuse between men and women include:
- Peer pressure, low-self esteem, and depression. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) reports on a study of young girls and women aged 8-22 experience a these risk factors more often than men do.
- Responses to major life events. A woman may more readily suffer from a mental health disorder and/or issues with substance abuse after a divorce, loss of child custody, or death of a family member.
- Domestic violence. NIDA reports that one in three women has been the victim of intimate partner physical violence, putting them at a higher risk for weight concerns, depression, chronic pain, and drug and alcohol use.
- Prevalence of mental health disorders. Women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and eating disorders more often than men, which can influence both substance use and the onset of addiction.
Specific Drug Types and Addiction in Women
Just as women may abuse and be affected by substances differently, they also may use different types of substances at varying rates than men. Some of the common drugs of abuse among women are highlighted below.
Women go to doctors more often than men and are more apt to report acute and chronic pain; therefore, women are more likely to be prescribed pain relievers than men, NIDA publishes. Women may also be prescribed higher doses of these medications for longer durations than men.
While men still abuse prescription painkillers more often than women, a higher percentage of women who are admitted to addiction treatment programs cite prescription pain relievers as their primary drug of abuse than men.
Many prescription painkillers are opioid drugs, which are extremely addictive. Using these drugs for an extended period of time, even with a legitimate prescription, can cause the brain and body to become physically dependent on them. Examples include:
- OxyContin (oxycodone).
- Duragesic (fentanyl).
- Vicodin (hydrocodone).
- Percocet (combination oxycodone product).
As prescription opioid painkiller misuse and addiction has become prevalent, many people are making the switch to the cheaper and often more accessible heroin. The CDC warns that individuals who suffer from addiction involving a narcotic painkiller are 40 times more likely to battle heroin addiction, and 45 percent of individuals struggling with heroin addiction are also addicted to prescription painkillers.
Heroin is highly addictive, and like other opioids, it activates pleasure centers in the brain and increases levels of dopamine. The “high” sets in quickly, and it is intense and short-lived. Like prescription opioids, heroin dulls pain and can provide a temporary escape from reality.
Women and men tend to use stimulant drugs at relatively similar rates, albeit potentially for different reasons. Cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription stimulants (such as those used to treat ADHD like Ritalin and Adderall) speed up functions of the central nervous system while increasing energy, sociability, and wakefulness, and suppressing appetite. A woman may take a stimulant drug as a form of diet or weight control, to combat fatigue, or to stay awake and focused longer.
NIDA warns that cocaine may affect women differently than men, however, making them more sensitive to its reinforcing effects and therefore potentially making them more susceptible to addiction. This may be due to the presence of estrogen.
Prescription sleep aids and anti-anxiety medications
Women typically report more issues with depression, insomnia, and anxiety, and are more apt to seek medical and/or mental health care for these concerns. The may be prescribed medications like benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and antidepressants, potentially increasing the risk to then misuse these drugs. Additionally, women may misuse these drugs as a method of self-medication for mental health issues, running the risk of becoming dependent on and then addicted to them
These substances have difficult emotional and physical withdrawal symptoms, and dependence can be formed within a short time of using them. Withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Rebound anxiety.
Men are more likely than women to report marijuana as their primary substance of misuse when admitted to an addiction treatment program. Marijuana may act on the brain of a woman differently than a man, and sex hormones may play a role in the brain and bodily changes brought on by the drug’s use.
Marijuana use and mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, are closely linked and women who struggle with marijuana addiction have a greater risk for suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, NIDA warns. Women may become dependent on marijuana more rapidly than men after initiating use, which can influence addiction rates as well.
Men and women react to alcohol differently, and heavy alcohol consumption may affect a woman more significantly than a man. This involves biological reasons, such as metabolism, and the fact that women are at a higher risk of developing more complications and problems related to alcohol than men. In fact, one drink may pack twice the physical punch for a woman than a man, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) warns.
Women may drink heavily for a variety of reasons, like to cope with stress, social and familial pressures, or due to being the victim of abuse or trauma. As with other substances, greater exposure often raises rates of addiction. Chronic alcohol abuse can create a dependence on the substance, and potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms are associated with alcohol withdrawal.
Need for Women-Focused Treatment Methods
As women and men may initiate drug use differently and experience addiction variably, treatment for addiction is can be more effective when it is gender-specific and specifically tailored to the unique needs of a woman.
As women may be more prone to relapse after a period of abstinence, support groups, stress coping mechanisms, and relapse prevention programs can be integral to sustained recovery.
Women may also suffer from co-occurring mental health disorders at the same time they are battling addiction to drugs or alcohol, and these can be addressed in a comprehensive addiction treatment program.
Drug and Alcohol Rehab in Hollywood, FL
Deciding to get help for drug or alcohol addiction is a brave first step on the road to recovery. The experienced and compassionate team of addiction treatment specialists at Recovery First are here to support you. At our South Florida inpatient rehab, we use evidence-based therapies to customize care plans that are tailored to the unique needs of each individual that comes to us for help.
Call us today at and speak with one of our compassionate and understanding admissions navigators. They can help you decided which level addiction treatment is right for you, answer your questions about paying for rehab, and help verify your insurance coverage.