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How Substance Use Disorders Differently Affect Men and Women

July 19, 2019
How Substance Use Disorders Differently Affect Men and WomenAddiction is a disease that doesn’t discriminate. Substance use disorders can occur in both men and women, although studies have shown that there are some distinct differences in the way addiction affects each gender. Variables like the most commonly abused substances, the onset age of addiction, and the likelihood of relapse are not consistent for both men and women. Some of these differences ⁠— reported by the Journal of Neuroscience Research ⁠— can be attributed to predisposed genetic tendencies within each gender, while others are the result of outside influence and societal norms.

How Addiction Affects Men

  • Preferred Substances: Men primarily abuse alcohol, heroin, and marijuana.
  • Age of Exposure: Due to their natural tendency to engage in risk-taking behavior and the likelihood of exposure to drugs and alcohol at a young age, men tend to use substances earlier than women.
  • Rate of Escalation: Once a man begins using substances, it will take longer for him to become addicted than a woman.
  • Maintenance: Men require a lower dose of a drug to stabilize their addictive behavior.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms: Men are more likely to experience greater withdrawal symptoms from alcohol dependency.
  • Likelihood of Relapse: Men are more likely to experience long periods of abstinence.

How Addiction Affects Women

  • Preferred Substances: Women primarily abuse alcohol and prescription painkillers and opioids.
  • Age of Exposure: Women are less likely to be exposed to drugs and alcohol at a young age, and addiction often develops later as a result of self-medication or a prescription.
  • Rate of Escalation: Once introduced to an addictive substance, women are more likely to rapidly increase the frequency at which they use it, putting them at greater risk for addiction.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms: Women are prone to greater withdrawal symptoms when quitting smoking than men.
  • Likelihood of Relapse: Women are more prone to relapse than men and more likely to experience shorter periods of abstinence. 

Important Conclusions About Substance Use Disorders in Men Vs. Women

Based on these differences in substance abuse in men and women, researchers have begun to understand more about each gender’s motivation for using drugs and alcohol and their patterns of addiction. While men are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol at an early age, those with substance abuse disorders also experience lower levels of stigma and tend to seek treatment after interference by a family member or a court mandate. Women are often introduced to addictive substances by men or through a prescription. While women tend to be exposed to drugs and alcohol later than men, substance abuse disorders develop more rapidly in women and carry more stigma. Many will resist treatment until they experience a serious complication such as an overdose or hospitalization. As a result, women are less likely to seek professional treatment and recover from their addiction.  Because of these distinct differences, it’s crucial that men and women receive gender-specific treatment. This will not only cater to their individual needs and circumstances, it will offer a greater sense of comfort, community, and connection. 

Research Sources:

  1. Becker, Jill B, et al. “Sex Differences, Gender and Addiction.” Journal of Neuroscience Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2 Jan. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5120656/.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use.” Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use, National Institute of Drug Abuse, July 2018, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/substance-use-in-women/sex-gender-differences-in-substance-use.

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