“There’s epidemiological data that says women are more vulnerable, but it’s unclear what the factors are. We know they transition to addiction faster and have more problems with craving and relapse. Now, with research like this, we’re beginning to isolate environmental and physiological causes.” ~ Erin Calipari, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research

Research in addiction has focused more on males and differences in the genders were not considered for quite a long time. However, there has been some research studies over the past two decades and scientists have discovered that there are important differences for men and women in every phase of addiction. This means that addiction treatment should be tailored for women differently than men. 

The studies that have been conducted found that women who begin abusing drugs or alcohol may become addicted to substances more quickly than men. Women are also more susceptible to relapsing when they experience a trigger. This is due to a stronger mental and emotional connection to objects, people and places for many women. 

A women’s hormonal system is complex. Even in one month, a female goes through a number of various hormonal changes. These hormonal changes can affect our physical body and emotional state. Our mental and physical health can determine addictive tendencies. If you’re going through addiction recovery, hormones can have an effect on your recovery and perhaps even on the risk of relapse. One week, you may feel fully motivated and the next, you’re feeling emotional and craving substances to numb your feelings. 

We are going to walk you through how these hormonal shifts can affect a woman’s mental health and how addiction ties into it. There are interesting facts that maybe you weren’t aware of. It will help you understand your feelings and why they’re happening. 

Hormonal Cycles Throughout a Woman’s Life

Hormones can have a major effect on how you feel and what your moods look like. This can change throughout your life. The impact your mood can have on you can negatively affect your quality of life. There are mental health conditions that can have something to do with your hormone cycles. Menopause can also deeply affect your mental and physical health.

Female Sex Hormones and Addiction

Primary female sex hormones include estrogen and progesterone. They influence menstruation, pregnancy, menopause and more. The body makes more hormones that can affect your mood and ultimately your behaviors. Our mood contributes to our emotions, which is often a driving factor to substance abuse, potentially leading to addiction. One of the examples is that women might use substances to numb our pain or negative emotion and this can quickly get out of control. 

To date, a significant knowledge gap remains in our understanding of the role of ovarian hormones in mediating drug-seeking behavior in marijuana-, alcohol- and opioid-dependent women.” ~  Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, Clinical Neuroscience Division

Consider this, your brain on PMS acts in the same way it does when it’s influenced by alcohol and depressants. Progesterone is the hormone that appears once you’ve ovulated. It stays most prevalent during the luteal phase. There is also estrogen, which appears in the first two weeks of your monthly cycle. Both hormones will have a major effect on your mood. Progesterone can have a depressing effect when it’s present. Some women even report being “progesterone intolerant” due to the negative physical and emotional effects felt during its rise and fall. 

The phenomenon of why progesterone affects your mood has been hugely understudied. However, new tests are being conducted and it’s been found that progesterone triggers a part of your brain. The affected area of the brain is your main alert system. It is what responds to your surroundings and figures out if you’re in danger. This can trigger feelings of fear and anxiety. It can also cause you to feel depressed. When we look to reasons for addiction, emotions and most likely progesterone play a factor. 

A study conducted with rats gave insight into how a woman’s reproductive hormones can play a part in addiction. For example, it was found that when ovaries were taken out of female rats, their tendencies to seek out pleasure (drugs) went away. Estrogen has shown to be a cause of women developing addictions more quickly than men. What researchers believe is that estrogen can actually enhance the “high” of substance. That more pleasure one experiences creates a faster dependency.

A study at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found that estrogen intensifies the amount of pleasure you feel from cocaine in particular. This research gives insight to all types of substance addiction. Cocaine showed to have the most powerful effect during the menstrual cycle, which is when estrogen levels are at their highest. The research suggested that a potential addiction intervention would be to adjust the hormonal cycle by using birth control pills or other means to reduce hormone fluctuations. *Speak to your doctor as we cannot advise on medication.

In a nutshell, it seems Estrogen makes a woman more vulnerable to the effects of drugs. It gives you a more positive feeling when you take cocaine or amphetamines. When you enjoy drugs more, you’re more likely to them want to take more due to the reward system that exists in the brain. 

The female body has many hormones that can affect behavior and addiction. They include:

  • Cortisol – regulates the functioning of every cell in the body. Cortisol secretion is very sensitive to stress. Stress is one of the common reasons of relapse.
  • Vasopressin – this brain chemical is believed to play a part in regulating stress, anxiety, and behaviors related to addiction. Researchers believe vasopressin can increase the feeling of stress while going through alcohol withdrawal. 
  • Melatonin – this hormone is secreted by the pineal gland and regulates various physiological functions. There has been recent evidence found that when there’s dysregulation with melatonin, it can have an affect on addictive behaviors. 
  • Thyroid – this gland distributes hormones through your body and women may experience either an over or underactive thyroid. This will affect your overall well-being and there may be drastic changes in body weight.  When you have a thyroid problem, you’re more prone to developing an addiction as you’re more likely to self medicate. 
  • Testosterone – There are many studies that discuss the role of testosterone and addiction in men, but sadly, not women. Women also have testerone and are equally affected by the hormone. If there is an imbalance of testosterone in a woman, it can have an effect on her health and sex drive. Testosterone affects how dopamine is released.

PMS

Your brain on PMS is like your brain on alcohol and depressants ~ Cassie Werber

Studies have found that withdrawal symptoms can be more severe based on what phase of the menstrual cycle a woman is on. For women who have stress, there is a higher rate of drug use during certain times of the month due to hormonal changes. 

Throughout the month, hormones will change for a woman. This affects their emotions, how they think, and the health of the physical body. The phases are:

Follicular (from menstrual bleeding until ovulation)

This phase begins on the first day of your period. It lasts from 10 to 14 days. This is the time where you’re more likely to experience moments of happiness due to hormones. Estradiol that rises in the body can assist in reducing effects of adrenaline and cortisol.

Luteal (from ovulation until the day before bleeding)

This is where your progesterone levels rise, which is the cause of moodiness. Progesterone assists the body in creating cortisol, the hormone that is higher in people who experience a lot of stress. If you have high levels of cortisol, outside factors can cause too much cortisol to be released. This can contribute to irritability in the luteal phase. It’s been found through 3 studies that women are more likely to eat fatty, high calorie foods. It’s also been found that women will numb the uncomfortable negative emotions they experience through this time. A women going through addiction recovery will be more prone to relapsing during this time. 

Understanding your hormone cycles can give you a better idea of why you do the things you do. This can aid in your recovery because you’re better prepared for the challenges you may face during certain times of your life. When it comes to your recovery, knowing how to manage the harder times of the month can be extremely helpful. 

Menopause

Some women will find themselves in the throws of addiction when menopause hits. Researchers have found the main reason for this is depression. As depression and addiction are often connected, women become more at risk during these years. Theories of why women become depressed include:

  • A decline in estrogen, which affects the chemical levels that make you feel good.
  • The symptoms of menopause such as disrupted sleep, hot flashes, and night sweats can contribute to your mood.
  • The life changes during this time such as death of loved ones, children leaving home, and retirement can contribute to depression as well.

Hormonal Cravings

Cravings during certain times of the month or in a woman’s lifetime ebb and flow. Probably the most common craving linked to hormones that comes to mind is PMS and simple carbs. The desire for chocolate and sugary things becomes greater due to a drop in serotonin levels. This triggers cravings. What’s even scarier is that lacking proper nutrition or eating too many simple carbs can cause blood sugar issues which are linked to substance relapse or any relapse related to addictive behaviors.

Imbalances in hormones such as a lack of leptin can also cause cravings for food. When you eat what you crave during this time, endorphins are released. This is exactly what occurs with other addictions. When you’re rewarded for eating chocolate because it makes you feel better, you’re more likely to repeat the pattern again.

Relapse Risks

Relapse rates in women have often been found to be less than men. However, upon looking a little deeper, more women will relapse later on down the road of recovery. Part of the risk of relapse in women is the amount of pleasure they get from substances. Also, because women will tend to abuse drugs to get rid of uncomfortable emotions, they are more likely to turn to them again when under duress. A National Institute on Drug Abuse 2 study found that women will have more cravings after addiction recovery. A woman’s cravings are higher than men when they abstain from substances, putting them at greater risk. Relapse can occur due to social pressure women face, past trauma such as sexual assault, and natural changes in hormones.

Are Certain Life Phases/Hormone Phases Connected with Addiction?

It would seem that the answer is yes. Life phases and changes in hormones throughout a woman’s life are connected to both addictive behavior and mood disorders. There haven’t been enough studies at this point to differentiate the difference between men and women in addiction. There is the idea however that your cycle phase or hormones could be a factor in addiction.

Why Women Become Addicted

Studies 1 have found that women are more likely to engage in addictive behaviors due to things like stress (also known as negative reinforcement). For men, they are more likely to take on addictive behaviors for the high (positive reinforcement). The differences between the reasons behind addiction may reflect our different genetic and hormonal makeup. 

There was a study that found women will become addicted to cocaine due to stress related issues. They will abuse the drug to ease their emotions. Further studies found that women are more likely to have a mental health issue and is an underlying cause for their addiction. They turn to substances when they go through trauma or are coping with anxiety/depression. The use of substances while having a mood disorder is known as a co-occurring disorder.

As an example, studies found a difference in how the brain activates cocaine dependence. For women, it’s due to stress and for men the cue is something different. Studies also found that women will have a mental health issue that coincides with their addiction. This could be trauma, anxiety, or depression and is known as a co-occurring disorder.

Treatment for Addiction in Women

As men and women have different reasons for addictive patterns, gender specific treatment can improve chances of a full recovery. The approach to therapy would be different because a woman has different connections and behaviors with addiction. Women will have some days where recovery is easy while others are challenging. Hormones will often play a large part in this. 

A woman’s addiction recovery treatment program will use different approaches that are more effective. This has shown to improve treatment outcomes. At Women’s Recovery, we specialize in helping women through addiction recovery by treating the mind, spirit and body. Our outpatient program targets the specific issues that women with addiction face. Whatever phase of your life you’re going through, we can help you get out of the addiction cycle. Contact us if you have questions about our program or any other addiction related inquiry. 

Sources:

1 Importance of sex differences in impulse control and addictions

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2015.00024/full

Marci R. Mitchell and Marc N. Potenza

2 Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/substance-use-in-women/sex-gender-differences-in-substance-use

3 Calories, beauty, and ovulation: The effects of the menstrual cycle on food and appearance-related consumption

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/251640146_Calories_beauty_and_ovulation_The_effects_of_the_menstrual_cycle_on_food_and_appearance-related_consumption

Journal of Consumer Psychology