Less than a generation ago, scientists who did research on addiction studied mostly men. Nobody knew much about whether there were any gender differences in addiction. It wasn’t until scientists starting studying large numbers of women that researchers discovered several important differences in the ways that men and women react to addictive drugs and alcohol.
More men than women are addicted
A study conducted in 2008 by the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that nearly twice as many male adults and teens had a problem with substance abuse or dependence compared to the number of female adults and teens with those problems.
Although fewer women than men have substance-abuse problems, the number of women is still very large. There are 4 million women in the United States who currently need treatment for substance abuse. An astonishing 200,000 women die each year because of substance abuse.
The gender differences, however, are getting smaller. The number of men and women with substance-abuse problems is now approximately the same among young men and women, at least in part because it is becoming more socially acceptable for women to drink and use drugs.
Men and women crave drugs for different reasons
A Yale University study examined pictures of the brains of people who were dependent on cocaine. The researchers looked at areas of the brain that become active when people crave drugs. They found differences in the brains of men and women.
The women’s drug-craving brain areas lit up when the women were feeling stressed.
The men’s areas lit up when they thought about situations or events where they might take drugs.
Another study, done at the University of Michigan, found that women were more likely to use cocaine to make themselves feel better when they were depressed, while men were more likely to use cocaine to feel even better when they were already feeling good.
Women and men process alcohol differently
There are several significant differences in the way that women and men react to alcohol. When men drink alcohol, their bodies break down the alcohol faster than women’s bodies do. The result is that women have a higher concentration of alcohol in their blood than men do after drinking the same amount.
Women who abuse alcohol are also more likely than male abusers of alcohol to become dependent on drinking and to have serious health problems, including liver disease.
Men and women’s brains differ in how they produce “feel good” chemicals
The brain produces a chemical called dopamine, which is very important in the addiction process. Dopamine makes people feel good. Its purpose is to reward behavior, such as eating or sex, that is healthy for an individual or for the species as a whole.
Most addictive substances also cause the brain to release dopamine, and when people crave drugs or alcohol, they are craving the dopamine that their brains will produce.
Researchers have found that the female hormone estrogen affects how much dopamine gets released in women’s brains, both in reaction to natural events and to taking drugs. Men don’t have this estrogen effect. The results of these studies could lead to new treatments for both men and women in the future.
If you would like to stay informed about issues affecting substance abuse, addiction and recovery, please subscribe to this blog.