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Addiction Differences Between Men & Women – How Gender Plays A Role

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Addiction is a complex disease because it affects individuals in different ways. This is most apparent when researching how it differs between genders. Simply put, addiction impacts more men, but more severely impacts the lives of women. Why does this difference exist? There are several reasons, biological, psychological, and cultural.

Addiction Differences Between Men & Women How Gender Plays A Role

Men Use Higher Amounts… But Develop Addiction More Slowly

Multiple studies have confirmed the fact that men are more likely to experiment with drugs and to use them at a higher rate than women. Logically, it would seem obvious that men would develop addiction more quickly than women. After all, using high levels of drugs would seemingly obviously increase the risk of developing addiction.

However, a strange reality emerges when exploring addiction trends: men actually develop a serious addiction over an extended period of time. For example, it may take over a year for a heavy-drinking man to actually develop a real physical addiction to alcohol. Or it may take several months, rather than weeks, to develop an addiction to heroin.

However, addiction and treatment rates indicate that there are more men suffering from addiction than women.

Women Start Small… But Escalation Is Quicker

By contrast, women start using drugs at a much lower rate than men. And besides smoking cigarettes, they usually experiment with drugs several years later than men. However, another strange paradox develops when inspecting the addiction rate of women. Even though women start later and use lower amounts than men, they actually escalate their usage rate more quickly and develop more severe addictions.

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Unfortunately, this means that an increasing number of women are falling victim to severe addictions. While the rate of admission into rehab is still relatively balanced between the genders, experts estimate that the level of women suffering from untreated addictions is growing.

The Biological Reasons For These Differences

Although men and women are incredibly similar physically, there are still several biological differences between them that influence the differences between addiction. For example, a study by the University of California found that men and women differ wildly in the way that the brain creates memories involving emotionally-charged concepts.

The differences seem to lie primarily in the area in which these memories are processed. Men process these memories in the right amygdala, while women do so in the left. What does this revelation indicate for addiction treatment? Researchers are uncertain at present, but they believe that it increases the intensity of these memories in women, making addiction harder to overcome.

An even more intriguing discovery indicates that women are further handicapped in addiction recovery by the menstrual cycle. The wild hormonal roller coaster they experience during that period makes it harder for women to biologically process their addiction or to deal with it on an emotional and intellectual level.

Another difference lies in the hormone estradiol, which enhances the intensity and effectiveness of dopamine. Estradiol, which is present only in women, increases the pleasure found in abusing addictive substances. That intensity of pleasure means that women develop addictions more quickly than men and are more likely to suffer severe relapses during withdrawal.

Psychological Reasons For The Differences

Beyond the biological differences for addiction in gender lies more complex psychological concerns. For example, men have been shown to use drugs as either a “thrill seeking” concept or even to celebrate situations in which they feel content or happy. Women, on the other hand, often fall victim to drug addiction by utilizing substances such as painkillers, to deal with stress or unpleasant life events.

That isn’t to say that women won’t do drugs at a party or that men won’t drink to deal with emotional pain. Or that women don’t experiment with drugs for the thrill of experimentation. However, a study by the Medical University of Vienna seems to verify the psychological concerns that drive addiction in men and women, respectively.

This study, which primarily focused on tobacco use, found that men started smoking later and typically chose to smoke when they felt content or pleased. Women, by contrast, started smoking younger and utilized it when feeling stressed or unhappy. Even worse, women were more often compelled by body concerns (i.e. weight loss) when smoking.

Societal Perception Of Addiction Is Also A Major Concern

Drug addiction is not perceived fondly by society, but the perception veers wildly between men and women. Men who are suffering from addiction are often perceived as suffering from a disease or experiencing a major health problem. By contrast, women are often perceived as “weak” or immoral when suffering from the same addiction.

A large part of that difference lies in the different gender roles prescribed by society. Women are often perceived to be the emotional and moral center of a family. For example, many people expect women to stay at home with their children or provide a guide for their personal improvement. And since addiction may drive a woman to struggle as a mother, she is perceived more harshly than a father who may struggle with the same problem.

These perceptions and stigmas are harmful because they often keep women from seeking the help they need. They are more likely to suffer the slings and arrows of harsh judgment than men, though men are by no means immune to judgment. The perception that drug addiction is an immoral or “weak” problem can cripple the recovery of both men and women and make it more difficult to get the help they need.

Breaking The Cycle Of Addiction

The addiction differences between men and women should never be used as either a scapegoat or an excuse to avoid treatment. No matter if you’re a man suffering from severe alcohol addiction or a woman who can’t shake a dependency on heroin, you can get help. Please contact us at Addiction Campuses to learn more about your choices. We can help you figure out your insurance options and find a rehab center that works for your needs.

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC
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