Men and women react differently to drugs due to physiological differences. An important factor affecting drug abuse and addiction is the hormone estrogen. Research into the biological and physiological factors affecting addiction has been limited, but is growing. Most recently, a study led by an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota found an important connection between estrogen and the progression of drug addiction. Finding the ways in which women are more vulnerable will help scientists and medical researchers develop better ways of preventing and treating addiction in women.
Gender and Drug Abuse
In terms of hard facts and statistics, men are more vulnerable to drug abuse and addiction. Statistics from 2008 show that around 12 percent of American men over the age of 12 have substance abuse problems. For women, that number is only 6 percent. More recently statistics still demonstrate that men are 2.2 times more likely than women to abuse drugs and about two times more likely to develop an addiction.
In many ways, however, women are more vulnerable than men when it comes to drug abuse and addiction. For instance, women are more susceptible to telescoping. This refers to a quick progression from drug use to addiction. In other words, women become addicted more rapidly than men do. Women also experience negative consequences of drug abuse and addiction earlier than men do, they have a more difficult time quitting and they are more likely to relapse after treatment for drug addiction.
Women, Estrogen and the Link to Addiction
Early research on the role of hormones in drug addiction demonstrated that higher estrogen levels can make women more vulnerable to the effects of drugs. When women are in a high-estrogen phase of their menstrual cycles, for example, they report more positive feelings when taking cocaine or amphetamine. The higher levels of the hormone coincide with greater enjoyment of the drugs.
Most recently, a study from the Minnesota undergraduate Ambrosia Smith used rats to demonstrate the effect of estrogen on drug use. Female rats had their ovaries removed. These are the organs in the body that produce estrogen. They were then given various levels of estrogen by injection directly to the brain so that accurately measured amounts of the hormone could be used in each test subject. The rats given the estrogen were more likely to become addicted to administered drugs. They were also more likely to self-administer drugs. The conclusion is that estrogen enhances the experience of drug-taking. The hormone increases the high experienced and leads to more drug use. Just how estrogen works in the brain to exert this effect remains to be discovered, but it may play a role in the reward center.
Understanding why women are more vulnerable to addiction and why they are more likely to progress rapidly from casual drug use to binging and addiction is important to helping prevent and treat addiction. Research on addiction has long focused on men and it is only recently that differences between men and women with respect to addiction have been recognized and deemed important.
With the new information on estrogen and how it impacts the drug use experience, better treatments can be developed and used to help women in recovery. Educating women is also important for prevention. When women understand their risks are greater for rapid addiction, they may make better choices about drug or alcohol use.