Even though the statistics say that men are using and abusing drugs more than women, women are actually more likely to get addicted, studies show (Carroll et al., 2004). And the sex hormone, estrogen, is partly to blame. Because of it, women need less alcohol then men to get its rewarding feelings. Find out why women get addicted faster.
A recent study by Ash Levitt and M. Lynne Cooper showed that “alcohol effects were generally stronger and more numerous for women.” They had couples write down diary reports every day for three weeks. Each person wrote about his/her experiences with alcohol, relationship, and partner.
Analysis of the diaries showed that “women (but not men) were more likely to drink, to drink with their partner, and to drink heavily when they felt disconnected from him earlier in the day.”
To understand the reasons, it is first necessary to look at some of the physiological effects alcohol has. Alcohol affects the central nervous system by modifying actions of your neurons, “thereby [producing] intoxication, memory impairment, reinforcement, and dependence” (Chastain, 2006). The following neurotransmitters’ actions are modified, and are associated with the positive reinforcement of alcohol consumption:
• Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has to do with reward and pleasure. Its release is increased due to alcohol consumption (Witt, 2007), producing positive reinforcement (Chastain, 2006).
• Seretonin is a neurotransmitter whose concentration is increased by alcohol consumption. Setertonin leads to more production of dopamine (Chastain, 2006).
How much the concentrations of these change after a person drinks alcohol depends on the sex of the person (Witt, 2007); specifically, a woman’s concentrations are more altered compared to a man’s due to the same increase in blood alcohol.
The female sex hormone estrogen, which is at much higher levels in women than in men, is to blame for this sex difference; estrogen affects the actions of neurons in the “alcohol reinforcement and consumption” part of the brain, especially those that act with…serotonin…and dopamine” (Witt, 2007). Therefore, women are “more sensitive to the rewarding effects of drugs than males” (Carroll et al., 2004).
It turns out, alcohol also raises estrogen levels in both men and women, and that is why “alcohol may relieve the symptoms of depression” (Hilakivi-Clarke, 1995). Since women tend to be more sensitive to “interpersonal stressors,” like a feeling of low intimacy and “negative relationship experiences,” that may cause such symptoms, they are more likely to drink (Levitt & Cooper, 2010).
In general, there are sex differences in behaviors that are reinforcement-induced. As demonstrated, this is because “biological mechanisms of reward might differ in males and females” (Carroll et al., 2004). But if a woman’s biology makes her more prone to alcoholism, then why do there seem to be more male alcoholics? One explanation is that it may be due to societal pressures; it is not considered attractive for a female to drink heavily, for example (Levitt & Cooper, 2010). What else do you think could explain this?
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