Substance abuse and subsequent addiction can have short- and long-term effects on the mind and body. Addiction is now seen as a brain disease that is caused by excessive drug or alcohol use. Addiction alters the biochemistry and anatomy of neurons within the brain, causing these essential cells to become less responsive to toxic substances. This is known as tolerance, which is the body’s way of trying to carry on business-as-usual in light of being flooded with addictive chemicals that can disrupt its natural state. The body is quite good at restabilizing and achieving homeostasis; however, this kind of adaptation can be long-term and even permanent, demanding the continued use of whatever drug to maintain the new normal. This is why those in recovery from addiction still run the risk of relapse, and they may need long-term therapy.
Biology and Social Factors Matter
Although drugs and alcohol affect men and women alike, those effects are not always experienced equally. Men and women differ in their susceptibility, recovery, and risk of relapse. For example, when it comes to relapse, women demonstrate a greater risk than men, which is thought to be attributed to increased reactivity to emotional and drug-associated cues. Moreover, in a study published by the National Library of Medicine, critical phases of the addiction process (initiation, drug bingeing, relapse) were identified. Females tended to be more vulnerable.
Blood Alcohol Levels
Biological differences are partly to blame for these differences. For example, on average, women tend to reach a higher blood alcohol level than men even when they drink the same amount. This is because women generally have less total body water than men. Moreover, the enzyme that is responsible for metabolizing alcohol exists in lower concentrations in women. This causes alcohol to remain in a woman’s system for a more extended time when compared to a man. It has also been observed that women generally experience worse withdrawal symptoms from drugs, like higher anxiety and stress when trying to quit smoking. However, when it comes to alcohol, men tend to experience more significant withdrawal symptoms, which may be attributable to a greater release of dopamine in the brain when consuming alcoholic beverages.
The Role of Hormones
Ovarian hormones like estrogen and progesterone may play an active role in addiction as well. These hormones interact in the brain, the same place addiction manifests itself. Research suggests that estrogen and the brain’s reward and stress systems may interact to facilitate drug use. For example, women may be more vulnerable to drug abuse as research has shown positive subjective measures increased after cocaine and amphetamine use during periods of elevated estrogen levels. In other words, the study participants experienced “overall drug liking,” in-the-moment “drug liking,” and “drug high” co-occurring with high estrogen levels. Animal research on cocaine additionally demonstrates behaviors such as increased drug-taking, acquisition, escalation, and reinstatement of cocaine-seeking behavior after animals were administered estrogen.
Drug research on female rodents also found that stress caused an increased reinstatement in alcohol, cocaine, and morphine seeking when compared to males. Neither testicular hormones nor estradiol was found to impact cocaine use in males. In general, the role of female hormones may allow the establishment of a drug abuse problem. However, once the addiction sets in, the hormones stop playing as central a role.
How Society Affects Addiction
The function that society plays in addiction is important, too; our environment matters as it helps shape our opinions, values, beliefs, and expectations. In this context, it may inform what types of drugs either sex typically takes, if they will decide to reach out for help, and how they are viewed by society. For example, a stigma exists around women who have an alcohol problem or are recovering from addiction. Being under the influence can lead to risky sexual behavior, and women can be harshly judged for this. This study points out that stigma and reduced social support can increase women’s risk of isolation and relapse.
The types of substances abused by the two sexes also sometimes differ: in the U.S., women tend to be more likely than men to use prescription drugs instead of alcohol and illicit drugs. Some women have reported smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol for reasons such as the social bonding it facilitates, while men may do so for the stimulation and calming effects.
When it comes to getting help, men tend to be less likely to admit and self-report their substance abuse or need for treatment due to traditional masculine ideals; this can prolong addiction and the road to treatment and recovery. Worse, it can add stress, anger, and isolation to mix and increase the risk of developing a mental health condition. However, men are generally treated for substance use more often than women, suggesting a potential bias in treatment programs.
Addiction is a serious illness that alters the biochemistry and anatomy of essential cells in the brain. Although men and women use and are affected by drugs and alcohol in similar ways, there are key discrepancies that help inform the treatment and recovery process. Biological factors like hormones play a role in addiction and are partly responsible for the sex differences in susceptibility, recovery, and risk of relapse. Social norms and gender roles also complicate our understanding of male and female addiction but are critical to consider. This is why Oceanfront Recovery has Men and Women Rehab programs that pay attention to these biological and sociocultural differences and structure treatment and recovery accordingly. We want men and women alike to get the quality and thoughtful care that they deserve. By recognizing how sex may influence your addiction, a wholesome picture emerges on how we should approach your unique case. Call us today at (877) 279-1777 for more information on how you take your life back from addiction.