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Why Drug Addiction Differs in Men and Women

Men vs. Women: How drugs, addiction and treatment differ between the genders

Facial hair, fat distribution, vocal depth, hand size and more can separate women from men, and most of these differences are driven by hormones. The little chemicals that course through the bloodstream help to shape the development of the body, and in some cases, these elements can even influence the way people think. The differences between men and women are influenced by more than just hormones, however, as the society often plays a role in how men and women act and react in a specific situation, and these gender-based expectations can be very different. These expectations may be fair or unfair, but they may also be taught from a very young age, and they may be very difficult to simply ignore. The confluence of biology and social expectation can, at times, have an impact on drug addiction, allowing men and women to have very different experiences.

The Influence of Biology

Multiple studies have suggested that women who use drugs experience more difficulties when compared to their male counterparts. For example, in an article in the Journal of Substance Abuse, researchers found that female addicts used drugs more frequently than men, and when they did use drugs, they tended to focus on harder drugs than those men used. Studies like this seem to suggest that women are, somehow, hardwired to develop much more serious cases of addiction when compared to men. Biology might be to blame for this.

In most cases, women are smaller than men. Their bones are lighter, they tend to develop smaller muscles and they tend to keep their weight down when they age. Even if they don’t control their weight, they tend to be shorter than men.

As a result, their bodies are just made up of fewer tissues. If smaller people take drugs and they don’t take smaller doses, they may be overwhelming their bodies as a result. Drugs tend to cause more damage at higher doses, altering brain chemistry in ways that result in compulsive behaviors. Since women are smaller, it’s possible that the drugs they take do more damage, if they’re not adjusting their doses relative to their size. It’s easy to see how this could happen. Drug dealers don’t sell a specific line of drugs made for men and another line of drugs for women, and prescription medications are also not dosed differently for men and women. As a result, men and women might be taking the same amount of drugs when they do take drugs, and women might be taking in more toxins with each and every dose they put into their bodies.

woman and men same drug dosage

It’s also possible that the chemistry of a woman’s body makes her more susceptible to addiction. In an article in the journal Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, researchers summarize a series of tests conducted on laboratory animals, and these studies seem to suggest that female animals are much more aware of the rewarding properties of drugs, and estrogen is behind this enhanced ability. Studies like this seem to suggest that estrogen seems to awaken receptors for drugs inside the brain, and when these receptors are awakened, they’re able to transmit rapid and profound signals of pleasure. The brain is designed to take note of intensely pleasurable signals and to seek them out again. If estrogen allows a woman’s body to feel greater levels of bliss, a woman might be more likely to develop an addiction, as her brain is flooded by more signals, and therefore, more cravings.

Cultural Roles

As a result, they might be more likely to dabble in drugs when their friends offer those drugs. Taking risks, doing something unusual and just acting on an impulse is something men are just asked to do, and it’s easy to see why these traits would lead men to experiment with drugs when their female counterparts might be likely to resist the temptation when facing the same set of circumstances. Men might also take large amounts of drugs due to cultural influences, as they’re consistently asked to compete and outdo the people around them. In a group context, men might be driven to take more drugs, experience more damage and repeat the behaviors again, just to prove they’re strong and manly. A binge like this could lead to a significant amount of misery, and an addiction could follow this kind of drug-taking behavior.

In modern culture, men are rewarded for behaviors involving:

  • Risk taking
  • Impulsivity
  • Innovation
  • Leadership

Men are also encouraged to keep their thoughts hidden and to solve their own problems. As a result, when men and women are faced with an addiction, women might be more likely to spot the problem and to ask for help. That’s the findings of a study in the journal Substance Use and Misuse, as researchers found that women with addictions were more likely to perceive the need for help, when compared to men. It’s possible that men refuse to see the problems an addiction can cause, simply because the culture doesn’t allow them to ask for help or admit that a problem even exists in the first place. They might nurse their addictions for years, allowing them to grow stronger and stronger, while women might be encouraged to give in and ask for help.

Where men are praised for their do-it-yourself attitude, women sometimes feel pressured to go with the flow and bow to the wishes of the people around them. As a result, women might get introduced to drugs through the influence of others, and they might stick with their habits for long periods of time because they’re surrounded by others who use. For example, in a study in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, researchers found that women were more likely to be homemakers, living with a spouse who abused substances, when compared to men. Women who live like this may struggle to get better, as doing so might mean leaving loved ones behind and going against the opinions and habits of others. If they do get clean, they might relapse as they’re living in environments in which drugs are available. It’s hard to stay sober when everyone in the environment is making different choices.

woman and men length of stay

If women break free and enter treatment programs, their gender roles can also keep them from getting the help they need. For example, in a study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, researchers found that women were less likely than men to stay in treatment for longer than 30 days. These women may feel the pull of their families and their obligations, and they may drop out of their treatment programs as a result. They may wonder who will feed the children, care for parents and cook meals. The demands of their homes can nag at them and pull at them, until they feel as though staying in care could lead to the dissolution of the people they care about. Dropping out could lead to disaster, however, as women like this tend to return to drug use. When these women return home to their drug use, their addictions could be stronger than ever, and they may have the persistent belief that they just can’t get better. A failure tends to exacerbate the problem, and a feeling of hopelessness after an episode like this can be hard to overcome.
More Differences on Treating Men and Women

Treatment Issues

Both men and women can get better in addiction treatment programs, but the way in which they enter these treatment programs can differ. For example, according to a study in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, men tend to enter programs due to social institutions like the criminal justice system or their bosses, but women tend to enter programs due to a referral from a social worker. It’s possible that men tend to go into treatment because they’re somehow forced to do so, while women go into treatment because they ask for help with another issue. Both men and women could be motivated to get better, but the way in which they enter their programs can be quite different, and that could have implications on the way they heal. Men might need to stay in care in order to keep a job or stay out of jail, while women might not have this sort of incentive behind their sobriety.

Much of the work done on addiction therapies has been performed on men, and while many of these treatments work on both genders, there is some evidence that women need slightly specialized care in order to heal.

For example, they may need:

  • Childcare options, as they’re likely to be the primary caregivers for their children
  • More group sessions, as many women find comfort in the company of others
  • Supportive, network-based therapy, as opposed to confrontational therapy
  • Alternative therapies that focus on creativity, including art therapy and music therapy

Read About Gender Specific Treatment Programs

Some programs provide separate care for men and women, segmenting the genders throughout the entire treatment program, but other programs just customize the care they provide per gender without asking people to heal in their separate quarters. Either method could be helpful for people who need to combat an addiction.

Learning More

Recovering from an addiction means learning more about how drugs of abuse change the brain and how people can use their minds to overcome the cravings of their bodies. Gender is just one of the topics covered in an addiction education program, and people who sign up for help like this might really be able to heal with the knowledge they gain. If you’re ready to start learning, please contact us at Futures of Palm Beach. We can help you to schedule an intake appointment and get started on your own customized path that leads to sobriety.

Contact Futures today to speak with a specialist and start your recovery.
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