February 08, 2023 By Leah Malone

How Does Substance Abuse Uniquely Affect Women?


Women and men experience unique physical and psychological issues from substance abuse. While many aspects of substance abuse and addiction are shared across genders and sexes, women and men often have different motives for using alcohol and other drugs. They experience varying effects from drug use and respond to addiction treatment differently. Becoming familiar with these differing effects is a crucial step in healing and recovery for both women and men. It helps individuals better understand why their bodies may be more sensitive to specific drug effects.

In this blog, we’ll discuss the unique effects of substance abuse on women. Grace Recovery provides transitional living and treatment services to women working to recover from substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders.

The Roles of Sex and Gender In Substance Abuse

Differences in substance abuse between men and women occur for various reasons. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that women and men experience unique issues due to sex and gender. According to the NIDA,

Sex differences result from biology, or being genetically female or male, while gender differences are based on culturally defined roles for men and women, as well as those who feel uncomfortable identifying with either category; such roles influence how people perceive themselves and how they interact with others.

Biological (Sex) Differences for Women

There is no question that alcohol and other drug use can have detrimental effects on people. Although men and women who use substances both experience various long-term consequences from use, biologically, women tend to be more sensitive to these consequences as they are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and other drugs.

According to a publication by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Women differ from men in the severity of the problems that develop from use of alcohol and drugs and in the amount of time between initial use and the development of physiological problems.” NIDA highlights the following elements that help to explain why this may be. It highlights:

  • Often, women use substances in smaller amounts than men before they develop an addiction.
  • Women experience more severe cravings due to alcohol and other drug use.
  • Sex hormones often make women even more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and other drugs than men.
  • Women experience differing brain changes due to substance abuse compared to men.

As a result, women are more likely than men to experience organ-related damage, cardiac-related conditions, reproductive consequences, breast and other types of cancers, osteoporosis, and worsening neurological effects from substance abuse.

Cultural (Gender) Differences for Women

Gender differences often play a role in the underlying reasons for women’s substance use and abuse. First, women are pressured to fill a motherhood role during adulthood due to traditional gender stereotypes. In addition, women often avoid asking for help, which can be viewed as a sign of weakness. To navigate the pressures of motherhood and other stressors, women may use alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate.

Another factor to consider is that men and women are not represented equally, nor have equal expectations regarding drug use, abuse, and addiction. Although men are known to abuse substances at greater rates, excessive perceptions of alcohol and drug use typically focus on women. However, women tend to internalize their struggles, especially substance use disorder (SUD). This can be even more evident if a mother has childbearing and childcare duties. They may feel as if they are a danger to their family.

Substance Abuse and Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

There are undeniable comorbid effects between SUD and co-occurring mental health disorders. Compared to men, women are more likely to develop depression and anxiety-related disorders. Further, women experience the effects of these conditions differently than men due to their sex hormones. Research has shown that women with these conditions are more likely to experience substance abuse and dependence.

Trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are known to contribute to the development of addiction. Women may be more vulnerable to the lasting impact of both childhood and adult abuse. Abuse is often found as an underlying factor for addiction in women. These experiences, and more, must all be considered during treatment for women to establish initial sobriety and maintain long-term recovery throughout their life.

Substance Abuse Treatment for Women

Despite the significant differences that women and men experience in substance use and abuse, “women are as likely to stay and engage in treatment as men,” according to a publication by SAMHSA. Still, treatment facilities must individualize client care to address women’s unique issues and needs to ensure lasting recovery.

Social support is one of the most critical factors that impact women’s and men’s retention in treatment. While social support can be experienced in co-ed treatment programs, gender-specific treatment programs may offer a more valuable recovery treatment experience. Gender-specific treatment programs are sensitive to the unique biological and cultural needs of each gender. This can help provide more effective and long-lasting recovery to clients.

Men and women experience unique biological and cultural differences that contribute to substance abuse and the development of addiction. Women tend to be more sensitive to alcohol and other drugs. Additionally, women are more likely to experience co-occurring depression and anxiety due to societal and cultural pressures. If you or a loved one is seeking recovery, our staff at Grace Recovery can help. We offer transitional living, treatment, and recovery services to help women get back on their feet from addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. We’ll walk alongside you as you work through life challenges in recovery. To learn about our services and treatment options, call us today at (737) 237-9663.

About Author

Leah Malone

Learning to sit with uncomfortable feelings can be painful and disturbing at times. When Leah was able to see her behavior patterns and decided there was enough pain to be disturbed, she became motivated to make changes and accept the work that needed to be done to heal. She needed direction and had no clue how to heal on her own. Through a connection with God, authentic connection with others, honesty, willingness, and humility, Leah is now in recovery from addiction and trauma.

Related Posts

Subscribe our newsletter to get
latest news & updates

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit