13 Apr Women Get Addicted More Easily Than Men
Addiction is a terrible disease. It is one that is both mental and physiological. Like other diseases, it has its roots in genetics and environmental factors. Many people are susceptible to becoming addicted to drugs, nicotine, or alcohol because of a combination of these factors along with their own unique circumstances. When a person becomes addicted to a substance, the brain literally changes its chemistry, making it extremely difficult to give it up.
Long treated as a moral failing rather than a sickness, modern medicine and research are catching up to the reality of addiction. Unfortunately, much of the early research that has improved the outlook on addiction, the treatments for it, and the understanding of its causes, was conducted with male participants. There has been a gap between our knowledge about addiction and how it affects women.
Over the last decade, that trend has begun to change and reverse. Researchers, particularly those working for U.S. government agencies, have enrolled women in more studies and increased our understanding of how women experience addiction differently from men. The investigations have revealed striking differences that have consequences for prevention and treatment.
Men are more likely to become addicted to substances than women, which is why so much of the research has focused on them. On the other hand, women progress to dependence or addiction more quickly than men. The negative consequences of addiction pile up more quickly for women as well. These include physical and medical conditions as well as social consequences. Women also have more difficulty quitting addictive substances and are more likely to relapse once sober.
Alcohol is the most abused substance in the United States in both men and women. Between 7 percent and 12 percent of women abuse alcohol, while upward of 20 percent of men do. The gap has been narrowing over the last several decades as drinking has become more socially acceptable for women. That the number of women abusing alcohol is on the rise is troubling because they become addicted more readily than men do.
There are biological factors that can explain why women become addicted sooner than men. The first is that women generally weigh less than men and their bodies contain more fat and less water. Fat retains alcohol, while water dilutes it. Women also naturally have lower amounts of two enzymes that are crucial metabolizers of alcohol. As a result, women end up with more alcohol in the bloodstream than men do.
While the evidence regarding the different ways that women and men respond to alcohol is clear, for illicit drugs the situation is murkier. Stimulants like cocaine or crystal meth are abused by men and women mostly equally. Specific research into cocaine use shows that there are some differences, however. Women begin using it earlier than most men. They develop dependence more quickly, and they are more likely to relapse after coming clean. One possible explanation is that hormone fluctuations during menstruation intensify cravings.
Opioids are another problem with distinct differences between men and women. Opioids include the illegal drug heroin, but also many prescriptions like OxyContin, Vicodin, morphine and methadone. Women are more likely to be prescribed opioid painkillers because they suffer more often from chronic pain condit. More research needs to be done to show how rates of addiction to opioids and responses to treatment differ between men and women.
Nearly a quarter of adult women in the U.S. smoke cigarettes to some degree, compared to more than a third of men. Women who smoke are more likely than men to suffer from medical problems as a result of smoking. They are more likely to develop lung cancer or have a heart attack. They find it more difficult to quit smoking than men do and are more likely to start up again after stopping. Why women face more health problems is not yet understood.
Research into addiction in women is still a new area of study. More work is expected to be done, especially since researchers so far have found that consequences of substance abuse are more severe for women.
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