Addiction is not a problem exclusive to either males or females. After all, at least 24.6 million Americans report some level of substance abuse, and those figures are not exclusive to either gender.
But, there is an increasing recognition that addiction may affect males and females differently. It is being realized that biological, psychological and even sociocultural factors between the genders may result in different outcomes. Due to this, there is a greater interest in the question whether there are gender differences in addiction and what they mean for treatment.
But this was not always the case. In fact, women were not even actively included in addiction studies. It was only in 1993 that the National Institute of Health (NIH) mandated their inclusion. In 2007, it was reported that fully 90% of all articles addressing the issue of gender differences in addiction were published after 1990.
These days, the question is made even more significant. This is due to the rapidly dwindling gap in access to and use of addictive substances for women, compared to men. This 2015 report from the NIH confirms, for instance, that drinking patterns among women are beginning to match those of men.
So, is there a difference in how addiction affects males compared to females? This article answers that question and also addresses what the gender difference would mean for treatment.
How Does Addiction Affect Men Versus Women?
Before proceeding to the question of how addiction affects males and females, is it true that addiction affects the genders differently?
Well, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says yes. According to the Institute, men are more likely to use pretty much all types of illicit drugs than women. They have higher rates of use or dependence on tobacco and alcohol too.
The catch though is that the gap is narrowing, and not where you might think. According to studies, while males generally use more than females, girls between 12 and 17 are just as likely to misuse prescription drugs and opioids as boys their age. Although males are more likely to use alcohol and illicit drugs, women are more likely to experience a high. This is often due to their generally smaller body type and, in some cases, menstrual cycle.
The important thing about the studies on gender differences in addiction though is that they are quite varied. There is no one-size-fits-all statistic for how addiction affects males versus females. Instead, studies show different outcomes that may vary in relation to drug/substance type, body type, demography etc.
But what the studies are clear on is that addiction affects males and females in diverse and varied ways. On the question of how addiction affects males versus females, a recent study outlined exactly in what areas differences exist. Using the five stages of addiction, the authors identified how the genders react differently to addiction. These five stages are as follows:
- Acquisition: This is the point of initial exposure to addictive substances. Addiction may or may not begin at this point for either gender. According to the study, men are more likely than women to take drugs and engage in risky behavior as part of a group. Women are more likely to self-medicate than men and may experience more pleasurable responses to drugs.
- Escalation: This stage refers to steady increases in the amount and frequency of substance use. The study reported that men are slower to get addicted than women. The rapid progression for women from initial exposure to addiction has been referred to as “Telescoping”. This is not restricted to only substance abuse either. It includes other addictive behavior like gambling.
- Maintenance: At this stage, the addictive behavior is established. This is pretty much the point of addiction. The study reported that females stabilize at higher doses of drugs than males do. Perhaps due to the higher doses involved for women, the study also reported that side effects for drug use are usually greater for women.
- Withdrawal: The effects for males and females differ with regard to withdrawal. For female smokers, withdrawal symptoms are more pronounced. They experience increased negative effects and greater stress response than male smokers. The study reports that men experience harsher withdrawal symptoms for alcohol addiction than women do.
- Relapse: This is the time it takes for an individual in recovery to re-use the addictive substance. The study shows that women are more likely to relapse than men. They are also likely to do so more irregularly. Men, on their own, experience longer periods of abstinence. However, this belief is currently being scrutinized as other research states that women actually have higher abstinence rates and lower depression levels post-discharge.
So, clearly, males and females react differently to addictive substances at each stage of addiction. But does this have any relevance to how treatment should be carried out?
Are Gender Differences in Addiction Important for Treatment?
Yes, they are. You can’t carbon copy male and female programs, seeing as males and females react differently to addiction, there are several studies that say so too. NIDA also acknowledges the need for gender separate treatment for addiction. This is especially so as members of each gender may have unique needs. These needs will have to be adequately catered to if the treatment program will be successful.
Reports indicate that researchers have found gender-specific treatment to be more effective. They have been found to yield better outcomes and much more positive response from treatment. In this regard, women-only therapy participants reported greater focus. They also reported enhanced support more than mixed-therapy groups.
There are many areas of treatment in which these gender-specific needs will have to be catered to. They include the following:
- Hormones: Recent studies have found a link between estrogen and telescoping in women. This is considered important for treatment. A better understanding of these hormonal factors will help improve strategies for treatment. For instance, some researchers found that caffeine could be useful to blocking cocaine promoted changes in the menstrual cycle.
- Stress: The same study reported that previous research has shown that men and women react differently to stress. The implication for this on treatment significant. While women may benefit more from stress-reduction therapies, men may profit better from CBT or 12-step recovery programs.
- Nicotine: In a review of gender differences related to smoking addiction, one study affirmed the need for separate treatment. It found that most FDA approved medication for smoking may be inappropriate for women. This was due to the fact men and women smoke for different reasons.
Apart from the above, in situations such as where pregnant women or women with young children are involved, treatment needs to be tailored. Children are at great risk of experiencing developmental problems if they are exposed to drugs in the womb. Due to this, special care must be taken with pregnant women.
They will also have worries such as child care and other responsibilities that may affect their commitment to treatment. Some of these needs will have to be specifically catered to. For instance, they will be more likely to stay in a treatment program if they are provided services such as child care, parenting classes or even vocational training.
Addiction treatment can easily get complicated due to the multitude of issues that underlie the problem. Gender-separate treatment is at least one way to reduce the complications and provide an environment where the best chance at recovery is provided.
At Stonegate Center, our primary focus is to provide the best care possible. Our gender-separate treatment facilities are designed to ensure the best possible environment for recovery. For our women struggling with addiction, we have Stonegate Center Hilltop. And, for our men struggling with addiction, we have Stonegate Center Creekside.
Based on the aforementioned study, it’s our policy that men and women remain separated at their respective campuses. We believe in protecting the marriages and relationships of our clients’ loved ones outside of treatment, and as such, we are not a coed facility.
If you or a loved one is suffering from drug and alcohol addiction in the Fort Worth or Dallas area, give us a call. Our Admissions team can be reached at (817) 993-9733 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our drug rehab is just outside of Fort Worth, Texas and is perfect for clients in the surrounding DFW metroplex.
John Eckelbarger is a Business Development Representative for Stonegate Center. With a BSA in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin, he has an interest in the neurobiology of addiction & pharmacology of drugs. He hopes to bolster Stonegate Center to the forefront of addiction medicine through bold, innovative content. He is currently pursuing his MBA in Finance from Texas Christian University.