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Addiction different for women than for men

Jun. 07, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

There are important differences between men and women when it comes to addiction to alcohol and other drugs and recovery.

The physical effects and damage to health that comes from regular use of alcohol or other drugs is different for women. In addition, there are also important social differences between men and women. By addressing the unique needs of women in treatment, better outcomes and recovery rates are achieved. Women will stay in treatment longer and be more engaged in treatment when their unique needs are met.

Women tend to develop dependence on alcohol more quickly than men. Women and men absorb alcohol differently, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Understanding how our bodies use and break down alcohol is complex and involves multiple organs, including the mouth, stomach, esophagus, intestines, liver, kidneys and brain.

Studies show that women have higher breath alcohol or blood alcohol content (BAC's) after consuming the same amount of alcohol as men. Women's bodies are not able to break down alcohol as efficiently or quickly as men, leading to higher alcohol concentrations in the blood stream and higher levels of acetaldehyde in the body. Acetaldehyde is a toxic and harmful byproduct of alcohol when it is absorbed, processed and eliminated in the body. Acetaldehyde is produced by the body as it processes alcohol and it makes drinking unpleasant by causing redness and flushing of the face, nausea and a rapid heartbeat. Women in general tend to have less of an enzyme in the stomach and small intestine that breaks down alcohol which then creates higher levels of acetaldehyde and alcohol in the bloodstream (and on their breath) leading to greater possibility of organ damage (see www.niaaa.nih.gov).

Higher levels of alcohol in the body on a consistent basis is directly linked to serious chronic health problems. When alcohol is used on a regular basis by women, they are more likely to develop alcohol dependence or "alcoholism" and more likely to develop serious health consequences earlier than men. Some of the serious and chronic health consequences of alcoholism include cancer, alcoholic liver disease leading to cirrhosis and alcoholic pancreatitis.

Scientific information about gender differences in the development of addiction to drugs is less available. What is certain is that women develop addiction and serious physical health problems at lower doses and develop drug dependence over shorter periods of time than men (see www.samhsa.gov). Health problems for drug addicted women include cirrhosis, liver and kidney disease and increased risk of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis.

Women who use alcohol and other drugs are more likely to have co-occurring mental health problems including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Women with substance use disorders are more likely than men to have been victims of trauma -- physical and sexual abuse. They are more likely to be victims of interpersonal violence than men. Issues related to abuse, trauma and domestic violence contribute to the continued use and increases in the use of alcohol and other drugs. Effective treatment addresses mental health issues, trauma and interpersonal violence like domestic violence.

Another important difference is how women define themselves. Women are more likely than men to define who they are in terms of relationships -- they are spouses, partners, mothers, sisters, friends, daughters of other people. Relationships have more significance to women than men in general. Women are more likely to be introduced to alcohol and other drugs through significant relationships (boyfriends, spouses, friends and family members). Women are also more likely to sustain alcohol and drug use when their primary relationships are with others who use alcohol and other drugs. Women are more likely to view drug use as a way to connect with their partner or a way of maintaining relationships. Women jump to injecting drugs faster than men and the high risk behaviors associated with injection drug use are directly influenced by significant relationships, according to www.samhsa.gov.

Women are more likely than men to enter treatment if it will affect child custody, according to SAMHSA (see www.samhsa.gov). If women are able to keep their children with them during treatment, they are more likely to enter treatment, participate in treatment services, remain in treatment and maintain abstinence. Women see themselves as responsible for raising children. Women who are parenting say the support of their children is an essential ingredient in their recovery. Providing parenting support and guidance and child care services are just as important as effective addictions treatment services to engaging and retaining women in treatment.

Pregnant women using alcohol and other drugs have special needs. Most pregnant women understand the risks to a developing baby of using alcohol and other drugs and they carry a tremendous amount of guilt. The most immediate issue is to safely withdraw the mother and unborn baby from alcohol and drugs and begin treatment and recovery. Alcohol used regularly and in moderate to heavy amounts during pregnancy causes a variety of birth defects, including fetal alcohol effects (FAE) and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

Alcohol and drug use during pregnancy escalates beyond being a choice if the disease of addiction has taken away the ability to control and extinguish use, despite pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (see www.cdc.gov), alcohol related birth defects are the most common nonhereditary causes of mental retardation. Knowledge (knowing better) or fear of damage to an unborn child is not usually sufficient to conquer the disease of addiction; often professional help is necessary. Counselors and treatment programs are ready to help pregnant clients manage the additional stress, demands and the guilt that pregnancy causes in women struggling with alcohol and other drugs.

When a problem with alcohol or other drugs interferes with functioning at work, school or at home, an evaluation with a professional is helpful. People get better with the right kind of care. Prestera Center offers long-term residential treatment programs for pregnant and parenting women and special outpatient treatment programs specially designed to meet the unique needs of women with alcohol and drug problems.

Prestera Center offers Putnam County residents access to effective professional mental health and addictions treatment services in Winfield and Hurricane. Offices in Winfield are located at 3389 Winfield Road, Suite 8, on the grounds of the Courthouse Complex (304-586-0670). Offices in Hurricane are called "Hopewell" and are located at 3772 Teays Valley Road (304-757-8475). The Hopewell offices specialize in serving adults with insurance in need of addiction treatment and mental health problems like grief, depression and anxiety or more severe mental health problems. Both offices are accepting new clients and scheduling appointments. Walk-ins are also welcome Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. at the Winfield location.

Kim Miller is the director of Corporate Development at Prestera. She can be reached at kim.miller@prestera.org.