As modern science has improved our understanding of how addictions develop, how they impact addicts, and how successful treatment programs are, interesting gender patterns have also emerged. It turns out that men still become addicted to drugs and alcohol at higher rates, for instance, but women escalate their substance abuse much faster.
1. Men are more likely to become addicted
If the stereotypical addict you picture is a man, you wouldn't be entirely wrong — men are still much more likely to start using almost all kinds of drugs than women, and for every woman with a substance use disorder, there will be two or three men. This is probably not, research suggests, because men are inherently more vulnerable to substance use disorders. Rather, men might have more opportunities to become addicted, both because they're more likely to encounter drugs and because using them may be slightly more socially acceptable.
2. Women escalate their addictions faster and find it harder to quit
Women might be less likely to start using, but once they do, they increase their consumption of drugs and alcohol much more quickly than men, data shows. Once they're addicted to a drug, whether alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, or tobacco, women also have a harder time quitting.
3. For women, the menstrual cycle plays a role in addiction
Fascinatingly, at least 13 studies have investigated how the menstrual cycle impacts a woman's odds of successfully quitting smoking. They consistently found that it's harder to quit during the luteal stage of the cycle, just before a woman is expecting her period — the time during which the hormones estrogen and progesterone are present in lower amounts. A woman has a higher chance of quitting smoking successfully, plagued by fewer cravings and less grumpiness, if she stops soon after getting her period. On the other hand, women who abuse amphetamine experience a better subjective high during this same time, called the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle.
4. Do men and women become addicted for different reasons?
Maybe. It's known, for instance, that women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain — which in turns places them at greater risk of abusing prescription opioid painkillers. Women who use methamphetamine do so because they want to lose weight, because they are looking to boost their energy to be able to fulfill their daily responsibilities, and because they're depressed in higher numbers than men. Adolescent females are more likely to start abusing substances because of peer pressure, while adult women are often introduced to substances by romantic partners.
Men, on the other hand, are at risk of dangerous alcohol intake because they try to live up to gender stereotypes. Thrill-seeking and the wish to experience something new also plays more of a role in men's initiation into addiction. With regards to alcohol, men may have a unique genetic vulnerability if their close male relatives were also alcoholics. Men who face trauma from combat turn to substance abuse to deal with the symptoms more often, as well.
4. Drugs and alcohol affect men and women differently
- Women will have higher concentrations of alcohol in their blood than men after drinking the exact same amount. If they develop alcoholism, they're more likely to die from it.
- Men, research shows, experience a "better high" after smoking marijuana. Women are more likely to suffer memory problems, on the other hand, but also experience better pain relief from cannabis.
- Women who use cocaine are more likely to suffer adverse cardiovascular events, but are less at risk of blood flow abnormalities in the brain.
- Men who use MDMA (ecstacy) have more extreme blood pressure spikes, while women experience stronger hallucinations.
5. Men with substance use disorders are more likely to be identified
Research has shown that primary care doctors are more likely to correctly identify men as having a substance abuse problem. Employers and educational institutions have higher odds of realizing men have a substance addiction and to refer them for treatment, too. Addictions in women with children are more frequently diagnosed after they've had contact with child protective services, on the other hand.
6. Women suffering from substance addictions seek treatment less often
Despite the fact that women see doctors much more often than men for almost everything else, women seek help for a substance abuse problem less frequently. This may be for financial reasons, because they are afraid of the stigma attached to an addiction, or because they lack childcare. Women who do seek help are more likely to turn to their family doctor than a specialized addiction treatment program, in contrast to men.
7. Men vs women: How effective is addiction treatment?
Though women are less likely to see a professional about a substance abuse problem, they have about the same odds as men of completing a treatment program once they enter one. Treatment programs seem to impact women's chances of getting and staying clean and sober more intensely, however — women who finish addiction treatment have been shown to be nine times more likely to remain substance-free, while men are only three times more likely to stay off the drugs and alcohol after completing treatment.