The Women’s Experience
Recent studies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that drinking rates among young women have caught up with those of young men.
While some see this as another indication of women achieving “equality,” the truth is that women are not equal when it comes to drinking or doing drugs. In many case, women experience more negative biological consequences than men do.
For example, the average-sized woman will get intoxicated more quickly and with fewer drinks than will the average sized man. The reason is that women metabolize alcohol differently than men do, because the female body contains more fatty tissue and less water than the male body does.
Women who drink alcohol tend to experience more severe impairment of cognitive function and are more likely to lose memory of their drinking experience. In one study in Germany, women lost more brain tissue from drinking alcohol than men did, even when the female subjects consumed less alcohol than their male counterparts did.
Everyone who uses alcohol to excess will damage vital organs such as the brain, liver, stomach and esophagus, but such damage will occur more quickly in females.
Some research indicates that similarly imbalanced effects result from drug use. For example, female rats are more likely to become addicted to cocaine than are male rats. Many studies show that most women have more trouble quitting smoking than men do, which again may indicate that females might be more prone to addictions.
Because their bodies are smaller, women are more likely to incur damage from carcinogens such as tobacco, which as been implicated in cancers of the breast, lung, esophagus, and stomach. Some drugs, including alcohol and methamphetamine, affect the female reproductive system in adverse ways.
Drugs and Pregnancy
Alcohol abuse among pregnant women can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, which means the child of an alcoholic is at risk for being born with a smaller than average head, mental impairments, and a range of other birth defects.
Unborn babies of women who are addicted to heroin and other opiates become addicted in the womb. Pregnant drug users are at greater risk for miscarriages, tubal pregnancies, low weight gain, hypertension, stillbirths, and other medical problems.
As is the case with children of alcoholics, newborns whose mothers are addicted to drugs often have low birth weights and smaller than normal heads than normal.
Drug abuse affects almost 6 percent of all children born in the United States, or about 250,000 babies a year.
Drugs and Assault
Drug addicts and alcoholics are at increased risk for physical and sexual assaults, because they are more likely to be cognitively impaired, and thus less likely to be aware of imminent dangers or able to fend off an attack.
The mental impairment that comes with using drugs or excessive drinking often means that women make poor sexual decisions, such as having sex with multiple partners or having unprotected sex. These behaviors put them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.
Women are four times more likely to contract STDS than men are, because a greater area of their bodies is exposed to such viruses during sex.
Mental Problems and Drug Use
Many drug users and alcoholics often have what psychiatrists call “comorbidities” or mental problems that occur along with the substance abuse. For those who are dependent upon alcohol or addicted to other drugs, common comorbidities include depression, eating disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Female alcoholics and drug addicts are much more likely to have comorbidities than men are:
- One study found that 55 percent of patients with eating disorders also had drug and alcohol problems.
- Another found that between 15 and 40 percent of female alcoholics also have eating disorders, often in the form of binge eating.
- Women who abuse alcohol, heroin, methamphetamine and other stimulants often believe that these drugs are keeping their weight down, and therefore it can be hard for them to give them up.
Women are more likely to abuse painkillers and barbiturates such as Vicodin and Seconal. These women are often self-medicating for comorbidities such as anxiety and depression — conditions should be addressed in psychotherapy and other treatments.
Since many women are the main caretakers of children, female drug addicts and alcoholics often feel more ashamed and more distressed about their addictions than do their male counterparts. They also still face more societal scorn and stigma than men with similar problems do, and often delay treatment because it is hard for them to get childcare arrangements or because they do not have money or insurance to pay for their treatments.
Treatment Can Be Successful
Women who remain in residential treatment have successful outcomes as often as men do. They can recover if they follow the advice of their medical professionals and continue in an aftercare program once they leave residential treatment centers.
Many women prefer single-sex treatment programs where gender-related issues, such as eating disorders and depression, can be more freely addressed in groups of other women with similar problems.