How Drugs Affect Women’s Brains

Although both men and women use and abuse drugs and alcohol, their experiences may differ in significant ways. Biological factors may influence the way in which substances like amphetamine are processed and subsequently their effects on the brains and bodies of users. Hormones, body composition, and metabolism may all contribute to the differences experienced.

Gender Differences in Drug Processing

Differences in the ways that men and women process drugs include the following:

  • Binding capacity in the bloodA 2014 article in Scientific American notes that women have less binding capacity in their blood than men do. Binding capacity is the ability of blood proteins to contain foreign substances. Because of this, drugs may potentially cause more side effects in women.
  • Hormone levels – Hormonal differences affect the way that women experience the effects of opioid painkillers. Women receive a higher degree of pain relief from the drugs due possibly to the effect of estrogen, which modulates the body’s pain response. Woman have a harder time quitting the habitual use of painkillers and are more likely to relapse after addiction has developed. Relapse is most likely during the middle of the menstrual cycle, when glucose in the brain, which is necessary for self-control, is lower.
  • Neurotransmitter binding – Men and women may differ in the way in which neurotransmitters bind to receptor cells. Younger women tend to have higher mu-opioid binding potential than men do, but in postmenopausal women, the levels are below those of men.
  • Stomach acidity – Women tend to have stomachs that are less acidic. This means that certain drugs may be absorbed more quickly. Lower stomach acidity may cause women to feel the effects of antianxiety drugs more rapidly and strongly, and the drugs may be more toxic to them.
  • Body composition – Many drugs are designed to dissolve in lipids in order to cross the blood-brain barrier. Women tend to have higher levels of body fat, and this can trap medications for longer periods of time.
  • Liver function – Most drugs are processed by the liver, and men’s bodies do this more quickly than women’s bodies do. This means drugs tend to stay in women’s systems longer. Different liver enzymes, however, may work at different speeds. Scientific American notes that the liver enzyme CY P3A4 is especially active in young women and that this may make some drugs less effective.
  • Kidney function – Men’s kidneys also operate more quickly than women’s do at filtering out drug compounds. This also contributes to the fact that drugs may stay in women’s systems for longer periods of time.

Differences in Drug Toxicity and Subjective Experiences

Because women tend to metabolize drugs and alcohol more slowly, their effects on the brain and other organs may be magnified. A 2004 report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that women who suffer from alcohol addiction develop nerve damage, cirrhosis and damage of the heart muscle more rapidly than their male counterparts. Their brains may also be more vulnerable. A study utilizing tomography of the brain found brain shrinkage in both males and females addicted to alcohol. The women, however, reported drinking excessively for only about half as long as did the men. A further indication of brain vulnerability in women is that despite the fact that men drink more heavily and often, the genders experience equal rates of blackouts.

The differences in the way that substances like amphetamine are metabolized leads to differences in subjective experiences. A 2006 article by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports on a study of men and women addicted to both cocaine and alcohol. After consuming the substances, men and women were asked to rate their levels of various feelings, both positive and negative. No differences were found when alcohol was consumed alone or when alcohol and cocaine were combined, but when cocaine alone was consumed, women reported higher levels of combined mental and physical well-being.

The article notes that the study parallels animal studies, which have found that female rats demonstrate higher levels of motivation for cocaine than do their male counterparts. Conversely, previous studies have shown that women report greater levels of anxiety than men do when cocaine is consumed. The authors note that the finding is significant because cocaine is the drug most often found by medical examiners in the bodies of female decedents and that it underscores the need for adequate addiction treatment.

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