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gender and addiction
03.19.2021

The Connection Between Gender and Addiction

Men and women are similarly as likely to develop a substance use disorder or addiction, however there are physical and physiological differences between the genders that may account for differences in how addiction manifests itself for the two genders. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, men are generally more likely than women to use all different types of illicit drugs (illegal drugs or misuse of prescription drugs) and this illicit drug use will more likely result in a visit to the emergency department, or death related to overdose for men than women. Women, however, are more likely to relapse or be susceptible to cravings which can lead to the cyclical nature of addiction. These are just some examples of the connection between gender and addiction.

Researchers have demonstrated that addiction and the consequences of it can differ based on biological gender. It is important to note that most addiction research prior to the 1990’s focused mainly on men and substance use was considered to be primarily a male problem. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that federally funded research began enrolling women in their studies and more recent research indicates that there are differences related to gender and addiction when it comes to social factors, biological responses, how disease progresses, other medical consequences, co-occurring disorders as well as barriers to treatment, relapse and recovery. Thus, this emerging evidence has emphasized the importance of studying gender and addiction and the implications of this research for developing gender specific substance abuse treatment interventions and programming.

Differences Related to Gender and Addiction

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Office of Applied Studies, men are more likely than women to be current illicit drug users, alcohol users and tobacco users. Men and women reported similar rates of use of stimulants, ecstasy, sedatives, OxyContin and PCP. Among those 50 years and older, men tended to be more likely dependent on or abuse drugs than women, while alcohol and prescription drug abuse are reported as the top two chemical dependency issues for older women. 

Biologically, there are differences in the body’s response to drugs between men and women. For example, there is strong evidence that men and women metabolize alcohol differently. Women can become intoxicated after drinking lower quantities of alcohol than men and will have higher blood alcohol concentration. This might be attributed to women having less total body water in comparison to men. Similarly, there are physiological differences between men and women when it comes to nicotine addiction. Women and men are addicted to nicotine at equal rates, however women generally smoke cigarettes with a lower nicotine content in comparison to men, smoke fewer cigarettes per day in comparison to men and also report inhaling less deeply than men. Finally, in some cases, the physiological response is similar, as in the case of cocaine. When given the same dose of cocaine, men and women experience the same cardiovascular response however the blood concentration of cocaine did not rise as high in women as it did in men. Women also generally initiate cocaine use sooner, and take less time to become addicted than men.

Research has also demonstrated differences in the demographics of men and women as it pertains to addiction. Women are more likely than men to have come from a family where there was at least one member who had a substance use disorder and were also more likely to attribute the cause of their addiction to genetics, a family history or an environmental stressor. Women who reported substance abuse were also more likely to be in relationship with someone who also abused drugs or alcohol. The behavioral manifestations also differed between men and women; men who were addicted were more likely to engage in sociopathic or criminal behavior to support their drug addiction whereas women were more likely to rely on prostitution or petty larceny. Gender role also plays a factor based on research: women who are addicted generally reported a history of some over-responsibility when it came to their family of origin and were more likely to use drugs or alcohol in response to a traumatic event or life stressors.

Treatment for substance abuse should consider these differences, and programming should cater to each of the genders. Research has shown evidence that women with substance abuse disorders often have another mental illness. This prevalence of co occurring or dual diagnosis is important because treatment for substance abuse will also need to address the other co-occurring psychiatric disorders.

Addiction Treatment in Florida

If you believe that you or a loved one is suffering from addiction, it is important to find them a treatment program that offers them options. Often gender specific programming can meet the needs of an individual and make them feel comfortable with their peers.. At Genesis House, addiction treatment specialists are able to work with you or your loved one to assess your situation and determine an individualized treatment plan that will suit your needs. A professional will be able to take a thorough substance use and mental health history and determine if drug or alcohol treatment along with additional treatment is recommended.