Substance Use Disorders and Women

Substance use treatment is most effective when tailored to the individual receiving it. Knowing that, it is important to note that gender plays a role in finding maximally effective treatment and that substance use disorders in women may progress differently than for men, often moving more quickly from first use to a substance use disorder. Women also may experience stronger symptoms of withdrawal or be more prone to relapse after treatment.

Research shows that women using substances can have an assortment of hormonal issues with their menstrual cycles, fertility, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause. Additionally, women often report different motives for using substances such as weight control, energy, and self-treatment for personal mental health issues. Women’s biological differences from men can result in higher sensitivity to some substances, harsher physical effects on their heart and blood vessels, and higher risk of death by overdose. Additionally, certain substances may result in increased anxiety, depression, and panic attacks in women.

The risk factors that contribute to substance use in women differ from men as well. For example, women who are victims of domestic violence have an increased risk for substance use. Other traumatic life events that affect women such as divorce, loss of child custody, or death of a child or partner can trigger mental health disorders including SUDs.

There is limited research specific to substance use in women due to outdated beliefs that because of women’s more complex biology, and because they were busy being homemakers, they were not good participants for studies.  Recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in addition to other Federal agencies, have made more of a conscious effort to include women in their studies.