There are significant gender differences when it comes to substance use and addiction. Both men and women face unique issues that influence the underlying causes of their substance use, what substances they use, and in what quantities. This article discusses the varying elements that influence addiction differently for men and women and how those elements affect their overall treatment and recovery.

Addiction Isn’t Just a Men’s Issue

It used to be thought that substance use disorders (SUDs) were only a problem among men. This is because early research often didn’t include women, perhaps because women were thought to be “too busy” as they carried out multiple responsibilities of raising children and taking care of the house. Recently, there has been much more research that includes women and their unique experiences with substance use and addiction. This research sheds a light on the fact that substance use has never been merely a men’s-only issue.

Women and Substance Use

Men are as equally likely to use substances as women; however, women respond to substances differently. Women tend to develop SUDs more quickly from smaller quantities of substance use compared to men. Sex hormones, like estrogen, can make women more sensitive to substances, and they can develop an addiction in a shorter amount of time. Women are also more likely to go to the hospital or die of an overdose from drug use. Similarly, they are more likely to experience harsher drug cravings after stopping their substance use.

Substance use also affects women’s bodies differently than men’s. Women who use drugs can experience issues with hormones, menstrual cycles, pregnancy, menopause, and breastfeeding.

Another thing to note is that women and men both have different motivations for partaking in substance use. It’s common for women to use substances to relieve stress, cope with chronic pain, deal with the pain of divorce, the death of a loved one, or the loss of custody of a child. As a consequence of substance use, women are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.


While women are less likely to smoke cannabis than men, those who do are more prone to panic attacks and anxiety as a result of marijuana use. Cannabis also affects women’s spatial memory more than men’s. Teenage girls are more likely to experience brain abnormalities than teenage boys if they smoke cannabis before their brain reaches full development.


Women are especially sensitive to the rewarding aspects of stimulants due to sex hormones like estrogen. Women are more likely to take larger amounts of cocaine than men; however, both men and women experience the same level of effects on learning and concentration despite how much they take. Women tend to take stimulants to have more energy to balance work, childcare, and home care. Women are also more likely to take methamphetamines for weight loss and tend to take these substances earlier in life compared to men.

Prescription Pills

Women are more likely to experience chronic pain than men, and, as a result, are more likely to take opiate drugs without a prescription. Women who are between the ages of 45 and 54 are more likely to die of an opioid overdose than any other age group. Women are also more likely to die of an overdose from medications for mental health conditions, such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines.

Alcohol Use

Compared to boys of the same age, girls between the ages of 12 and 20 are more likely to misuse alcohol or binge drink. Long-term drinking can cause more damage to the health of women than men, even if they drink for a shorter duration of time. Women also have higher alcohol-related death rates compared to men, nearly 50 to 100% higher. These are deaths from alcohol-related accidents, suicides, heart and liver disease, and stroke.

Treatment Challenges Unique to Women

There are more men who are seeking treatment than women; however, women are more likely to seek treatment for sedative drugs. Men are more likely to seek heroin treatment, but that number has been increasing for women. Pregnant women and women with young children are often reluctant to seek treatment for substance use due to fear of legal repercussions, such as losing custody of their child. Women also are more like to leave treatment early to take care of their child. In turn, women are less likely to seek treatment due to obligations at work, at home, and in child care.

Co-occurring Disorders in Women

Both men and women who use substances are equally likely to have an underlying mental health disorder. Women who have addictions are more likely to be struggling with underlying depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders.

Men and women experience different gender-specific factors that contribute to substance use and addiction. For example, women are more likely to develop a substance use disorder more quickly compared to men, as women’s bodies respond to substance use differently. This is due to sex hormones, which can make women more sensitive to drug effects. Similarly, women are less likely to seek treatment as they tend to experience greater pressures related to work and childcare. Bella Monte strives to include every identity in our narrative. We want to make sure that every person is taken care of despite their identity and background. This is why it’s important to us that women know the realities of addiction and substance use and how it affects them uniquely. To learn more about how our treatment center can help you, call us today at (800) 974-1938.