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9 Things You Should Know About Women and Addiction

By The Fix staff 03/08/21

Women tend to start using drugs for different reasons than men do, including to fight exhaustion, lose weight, or manage mental health problems.

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Drawing with pattern of diverse female faces with different hair
When it comes to substance use disorder and recovery, there are differences between males and females. Illustration 134995603 © Angelina Bambina | Dreamstime.com

On International Women’s Day (March 8), people from around the world come together to focus on advancing women’s rights and equality. This year the theme is #choosetochallenge, which invites men and women alike to stand up for gender equality.

Although addiction can touch anyone, gender differences often influence a person’s experience with both addiction and recovery. Because of that, accessing a recovery program that is focused on women can be beneficial in helping females achieve and maintain sobriety.

Here’s what you should know about women and addiction, including how we can create more effective treatment targeted toward females.

1. Women are just as likely to develop a substance use disorder.

Addiction has typically been thought of as a male problem. Treatment for addiction has focused largely on men, while not recognizing the scale of the issue in women. Although men are more likely to use illicit drugs, men and women are equally likely to develop a substance use disorder as their male counterparts.

2. Binge drinking rates are rising among women.

When it comes to binge drinking, women are leveling the playing field in a way that is anything but healthy. Binge drinking for women is defined as consuming 4 drinks or more in 2 hours. While binge drinking increased for most groups between 2006 and 2018, the most significant increase was among childless women ages 30-44, whose drinking rates doubled during that period.

3. Women use drugs, too.

In the U.S., nearly 20 million adult women use illicit drugs each year. Women tend to start using drugs for different reasons than men do, including to fight exhaustion, lose weight, or manage mental health problems. Divorce, the birth or loss of a child, and the pressures of motherhood can all contribute to female mental health conditions, which in turn increases risk for drug use.

4. Women may become addicted more easily.

Some research indicates that women can become addicted to drugs after using smaller amounts of the drugs, or using for a shorter amount of time. This could be because drugs and alcohol have a large impact on the female body, including the brain and cardiovascular system. Since women, on average, have more body fat than men, their bodies store alcohol, which prolongs the time that their organs are exposed to alcohol.

5. Addiction presents unique challenges for women.

Women who use and abuse drugs or alcohol might find themselves in unsafe situations. Women with substance use disorder are more likely to be in abusive relationships or to be forced into sex work.

6. Substance use affects women’s mental health.

Women who use or abuse substances are more likely than those who don’t to experience depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.

7. Women’s substance abuse affects generations.

Women who use substances face a risk that men don’t: injuring their fetus if they become pregnant. The rates of substance abuse among pregnant women have risen for drugs ranging from opioids to marijuana.

8. Women are more likely to die of overdoses.

Although more men than women die from drug overdoses, the risk of serious injury or death is higher for women who use drugs than for men who use drugs. Female drug users are more likely to go to the emergency room for overdoses. It’s not just illicit drugs that are dangerous: research indicates that rates of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder are likely higher than previously thought. Up to 5% of American children may have the condition, which can cause lifelong disabilities, including cognitive impairment.

9. Recovery can be harder for women.

There’s not enough research on recovery from substance use disorder for women. However, the research that’s out there is alarming. It indicates that women are more likely than men to experience cravings, which leads to a greater risk of relapse.

Leading medical officials in both the United States and Canada have called for more research to better understand women and addiction. Although substance use disorder has been studied in men for decades, there’s a dearth of research when it comes to females impacted by addiction. Learning more about why women abuse substances, how their bodies are affected by substance abuse, and what treatment modalities are most effective for them can help us provide more equitable, accessible and effective treatment for women.

Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a non 12-step drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in British Columbia. Learn more here.

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