Does Gender Affect the Way a Person Responds to Drugs or Alcohol?

Gender and Addiction

Although gender equality has come a long way in today’s society, some fundamental and undeniable biological differences underline the fact that we are not all created equal. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the link between gender and addiction to understand why addictive substances affect men and women differently.

How Social Roles Influence Substance Abuse

Throughout American history, men were more likely to drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.  Women were more likely to be prescribed drugs as medicine. Today, however, more women have joined the ranks with men when it comes to alcohol and drug abuse.

Gender-related sex differences in the brain can influence a person’s response to drugs or alcohol.  Other factors such as environment, family history, physical or mental health problems, influence a person to abuse addictive substances.

In many cases of drug abuse, social settings influence when and how a drug is used, and this becomes the norm.  For instance, people at “drug parties” are expected to participate in consuming a variety of substances. Also, at almost any type of social gathering, alcohol is considered an acceptable means of celebrating and socializing.  Teens who attend “raves” are expected to join in with the crowd of ecstasy or other club drug users.

Many of our role-modeling cues come from our associations with people who matter to us.  If those individuals are abusing addictive substances, it begins to seem normal to an impressionable mind.

How the Link Between Gender and Addiction Affects Women

According to researchers, men are more likely than women to use any illicit substance. However, the studies show that women are more susceptible to cravings and relapse. Changing hormone levels during the menstrual cycle have an effect on dopamine levels, which can influence a female’s response to drugs or alcohol.

Male subjects are most commonly tested in clinical trials. However, researchers include women subjects in the trials to ensure that the gender differences are analyzed and considered.  For instance, women who were taking the standard dosages of Ambien were involved in more vehicle accidents while taking the drug. Therefore, in 2015, the FDA recommended cutting the dosage in half when prescribing to women.

Changing the Guidelines: Including Women in Clinical Trials

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 5.0% of adult women were prescribed sleep aids compared to 3.1% of adult men.  Furthermore, the survey shows that women are 50 to 75 percent more likely to experience side effects from drugs or alcohol than men. It’s no wonder that one could see the relationship between gender and addiction.

More examples of the relationship between gender and addiction:

  • Women experience greater pain relief from opioids than men due to fluctuating estrogen levels.
  • Men are more likely to overdose on painkillers.  But, women have a harder time quitting and are more likely to relapse, particularly during the menstrual cycle.
  • Women respond more favorably to SSRI antidepressants than men.
  • SSRIs may be absorbed in a woman’s stomach because their stomachs are less acidic than men’s, thus increasing the chance for toxicity.
  • Sleep aids are troublesome for women because the female liver doesn’t break down the substance as quickly as the male liver does.
  • Because women have more body fat than men, drugs such as Benzodiazepines can linger in their system longer causing more side effects even at lower doses.

It’s interesting to note that women are at greater risks than men when using certain drugs that are no longer marketed.

Many clinical trials exclude women subjects because their hormones can cause confounding variables in the test results.  This approach to testing has had a profound impact on many women as they struggle with the effects of these potent substances.

Fortunately, as a result of the above studies, the FDA has issued a recommendation to lower the dosage of sleep aids for women. They also urge health care professionals to caution all patients about the risks of next-morning impairment after using these substances.  Additionally, the FDA announced that it would increase their effort to account for sex differences in clinical trials.

Should Addiction Treatment Provide Considerations for Gender?

The differences between male and female responses to addictive substances highlight an important point.  There are differences in how gender affects a person’s response to drugs or alcohol.  Plus, these individuals may also respond differently to treatment.  For that reason, a treatment program should address the relationship between gender and addiction by providing gender-sensitive counseling and activities.

If you would like more information about gender differences in treatment programs, contact us today.


drugabuse.govSex and Gender Differences in Substance Use

cdc.govExcessive Alcohol Use and Men’s Health

ncbi.nlm.nih.govGender and Alcohol Consumption

genacis.orgThe International Genacis Project

ncbi.nlm.nih.govMenstrual Cycle Phase and Responses to Drugs of Abuse

fda.govQuestions and Answers:  Risk of Next-Morning Impairment After Use of Insomnia Drugs

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