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Gender and Addiction

Addiction can occur due to a variety of factors, including environment and family history. However, studies show that gender also plays a vital role in its development. Although addiction is devastating and life-threatening to both sexes, research shows that men and women tend to be drawn to different drugs, and the disease affects them differently. Gender has been found to be a key factor influencing both addiction and treatment.

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The Two Sexes

Studies from 1980’s and 1990’s show that men started using drugs at an earlier age, abuse more drugs and in larger amounts, and males are more likely to engage in binge drinking. Moreover, multi-drug use was also more common in men than in women. The illicit drug abuse among adolescents and young adults is more common among men in high school and college. However, in younger teens in 8th to 10th grade, girls abuse drugs at the same rate as boys.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, men start abusing drugs at an earlier age because they have more opportunities and are more exposed to drugs than girls. Males often introduce drugs to females and they are equally likely to continue using.

Although men outnumber women in alcohol and drug abuse, the gap between the two sexes has been narrowing. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, the fastest growing segment of users in the United States are women. Research shows that 4.5 million women over the age of 12 suffer from substance abuse disorder, 3.5 million misuse prescription drugs, and 3.1 million use illicit drugs on regular basis.

Women relapse at higher rates after going through rehab, and their health, finances, and relationships suffer more than in men. Although women start using at lower levels than men, their abuse escalates more quickly. This phenomenon is called “telescoping”.

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Which Drugs Men and Women Most Commonly Abuse?

Men and women also differ in their favored drugs of abuse. Harvard Medical School reports the following results:

  • Males are more likely to smoke marijuana. However, with the fast-growing legalization of medical marijuana, this gap has been slowly narrowing.
  • Men and women abuse the same amount of stimulants. Although men and women are equally likely to use cocaine, meth, and other drugs, women become addicts more quickly and have higher rates of relapse.
  • Since women get more prescriptions for painkillers, more women than men receive emergency treatment for opioid addiction and abuse.

More disturbingly, recent statistics show that overdose deaths among women is constantly increasing, most notably with females abusing prescription opioids. Since 1999, opioid overdose deaths in women have increased by 400%. On the other hand, fatal opioid overdoses among men have increased by 265% in that time.

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What Causes These Differences?

Scientists are still examining the specific reason for these differences between men and women. Some propose that it’s “the difference in brain chemistry and the influence of female sex hormones like estrogen”. Most differences between men and women are due to hormones. These chemicals can shape the development of the body and can even influence the way people think.

Apart from biology, society also plays a role in how men and women act and react in a specific situation. This confluence of biology and social expectation can greatly impact addiction, making men and women experience it differently.

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The Influence of Biology

In most cases, women are smaller than men, their bones are smaller, and they develop smaller muscles. Consequently, their bodies contain fewer tissues, so bigger doses of drugs and alcohol can be overwhelming to the body. Since women are smaller, they should be taking doses of alcohol and drugs that are relative to their size. However, prescription medication and drug dealers’ products are not dosed differently for men and women. So, basically, by taking the same amount of drugs, women might be taking more toxins with every dose.

Furthermore, the journal Trends in Pharmacological Sciences has published an article that summarizes several tests done in laboratories on animals. Studies show that females are more aware of the rewarding properties of drugs, and it’s the estrogen that is behind this enhanced ability. Estrogen awakens receptors for drugs inside the brain that are able to transmit rapid and profound signals of pleasure. The brain remembers these signals and seeks them out again. If women’s bodies feel greater levels of bliss due to estrogen, then women are more likely to develop an addiction.

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The Influence of Society

Men possess couple of traits that can lead them into experimenting with drugs, including risk taking, impulsivity, innovation, and leadership. Peers influence men to take large amounts of drugs and they repeat the behaviors again to prove their manliness and strength. Furthermore, society teaches men to hide their feelings and solve their own problems. Consequently, when faced with addiction, women are more likely to notice the problem and ask for help.

Women are more likely to feel pressured to go with the flow and listen to the people around them. Furthermore, experts offer several other reasons, including:

  • Women’s body contains less water, more fatty tissue, and lower levels of specific enzymes, which allows them to absorb alcohol and drugs more quickly, but break them down more slowly. Consequently, women’s organs are greatly exposed to the effects of alcohol and drugs, and puts them at a higher risk of developing dependency more quickly.
  • Women’s reasons for using are different than men’s. Many women, still today, are both loving mothers, devoted wives, and successful businesswomen. All this added stress can push women toward addiction.
  • Women suffer more than men from multiple mood and anxiety disorders, mental health issues, and eating disorders. This provides them more access to addictive medication.

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Treatment Issues

Both men and women regularly enter treatment centers, but the way in which they enter these rehabs can differ. According to studies, men sign up for treatment centers due to social institutions, like the criminal justice system, but women enter programs due to a referral from a social worker. Basically, men forcibly go into treatment in order not to lose their job or go to jail, while women go to treatment to ask for help with another issues.

Researchers also found that women are less likely to stay in treatment for more than 30 days since they constantly worry about their families and children. Leaving rehabs can result in a relapse as women tend to return to drug use. In addition, women might sometimes need slightly specialized care, one that includes childcare options, more group sessions, supportive and network-based therapy, and alternative therapies like art and music.

Since female-specific rehabs have institutional knowledge and experience working with women but also address the varying unique need of females, gender-specific rehabs can be useful to women. For example, a female-only rehab might have social service programs that provide daycare, psychological services for children, and HIV testing.

For more information please call our Addiction Treatment Helpline at (844) 439-4765. This is a Free and completely confidential call. We are available 24/7. In many cases, your health insurance company will cover 100% of the treatment cost. So please call now.

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