“Mommy needs wine!” and other common memes highlight the societal trends of normalizing substance abuse in women. An estimated 19.5 million women reported using illicit substances over the past year, according to recent studies. These numbers do not include the use of alcohol or tobacco. Why does this matter? Science shows that there are many important differences in the way that women respond to drugs when compared to men. From a metabolic standpoint, women often suffer the negative consequences of drug use more than men due to body size and metabolism. Women more easily become intoxicated or have adverse health consequences. Women may become addicted to substances quicker, and after using smaller quantities than men. Women may also be more likely and experience relapse after treatment.
Why Do Women Use?
Research indicates that women may have different reasons for using than men. In a society where many women feel pressured to “do it all”, it may initiate use to deal with stress or have more energy. It is not uncommon for women that I have worked with to set expectations for themselves to work 40 or 50 hours outside of the home, and also shuttle children to practices, events and keep their house maintained enough to host Sunday brunch. Needless to say, it is often difficult for them to squeeze in time for self-care or other activities to further mental health. Depression, anxiety and past trauma may also trigger women to use more than men. Past trauma has been widely associated with future substance use, and impaired decision making while intoxicated can create a dangerous cycle that propagates ongoing use.
Specific Health Consequences for Women
Brain changes after substance use are different in women than in men, and women may experience more damaging effects to their heart and blood vessels after use. Substance use during pregnancy increases risks of complications such as preterm labor, migraines and seizures, and also exposes the unborn baby to harmful effects. Opioid use in pregnancy can result in Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, in which babies may experience withdrawal symptoms following delivery and requires weeks of uncomfortable detox following delivery. Alcohol use in pregnancy has also been associated with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which includes hallmark facial abnormalities, behavioral issues and other physical features.
Seeking Help for substance abuse
Multiple factors may make it more difficult for women to access treatment for problematic substance use. In families where the woman is the primary caretaker of children or aging parents, it may be difficult to be gone for long periods of time to attend a residential program. This can be compounded when women “do it all”, and also work outside the home. For single mothers, this can be especially challenging. Some programs offer options for women to bring their children or otherwise include them in treatment programming. Women may also avoid treatment due to fear of legal consequences or due to fear of referral to Child Protective Agencies.
First and foremost, if you are concerned that you are engaging in a problematic pattern of substance use, be kind to yourself! Addiction is a complex phenomenon influenced by physical, biochemical, psychological and social factors. It is not a moral failure. You can reach out to a confidential admissions representative to learn more about treatments available in your area that fit your lifestyle.
If you are looking for inpatient or outpatient drug or alcohol rehab, you can visit the Landmark Recovery, an Indiana treatment center, to learn about their substance abuse programs that are saving lives and empowering families.
About The Author
Today’s Clinical Column was written by Dr. Sarah Johnson. Dr. Johnson is the medical director at Landmark Recovery. She graduated from the University of Louisville School of Medicine and has worked in the recovery field for nearly half a decade.