Substance misuse affects millions of individuals and families in the United States, including many women.
Although men are considered more likely to use illicit drugs, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that women are just as likely as men to develop a substance use disorder—a complex condition that involves uncontrollable substance use despite consequences.
Even more, according to some research—women may be more likely than men to develop severe cravings and relapse.
Women also typically enter treatment with more severe health problems, requiring specialized treatment programs targeting all disorders and health conditions at once.
In all people, but especially women, struggles with drinking or drug use are highly stigmatized—especially among those who are pregnant or have a mental illness like depression or anxiety.
This culture of silence can make it difficult for women to identify when they have a problem and to determine when it’s time to seek help. Sharing the ways that substance abuse can affect women’s health is one way to break the silence and amplify common warning signs.
How Substance Abuse Affects Physical Health
Drug and alcohol abuse can have numerous effects on physical health. According to some research, women can be at a higher risk for developing physical dependence—or a physical reliance on substances—more quickly than men.
Among cisgender women, this is in part attributed to differences in biology and stress response that may make a woman more sensitive to the effects of addictive substances in smaller quantities.
Broadly, substance abuse can also affect:
- hormone levels
- blood sugar
- heart health
- bone health
- hair and skin health
- menstrual cycle
- sex drive
Women who develop substance use disorders may experience difficulty sleeping, have constant drug cravings, and struggle to keep up with daily tasks.
Over time, this can hurt relationships, cause financial stress, and exacerbate feelings of guilt and hopelessness commonly experienced by people with drug and alcohol use disorders.
Substance Abuse And Pregnancy
Another major issue that disproportionately affects women is the effects of drug and alcohol use on pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Although this can vary by drug type, substance misuse has been linked to negative effects on fetal development, low birthweight, congenital issues, as well as miscarriage—all of which can have long-term and potentially traumatic consequences.
And while the dangers of drinking alcohol or using drugs during pregnancy are generally common knowledge, people who are dependent on or addicted to substances during pregnancy may be unable to stop alone.
Women who are struggling with substance abuse while pregnant may feel ashamed to ask for help, in fear that they will be negatively judged. For some, this may even lead to increased substance use, as a mechanism for coping with the associated guilt, fear, or pain of pregnancy.
Effects On Mental Health
For many women, drugs and alcohol can become a way to manage stress, control weight, or to self-medicate feelings of depression or anxiety. Substance abuse is also common among survivors of trauma.
Unfortunately, while substance use may temporarily quell these struggles, over time they can actually do the opposite, by increasing their severity.
Substance abuse is associated with:
- increased risk for suicide
- worsened depression
- feelings of hopelessness
Drug and alcohol abuse has a strong connection to mental health disorders that commonly affect women, such as eating disorders, postpartum depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), about half of people with eating disorders have co-occurring substance use issues. Substance misuse also affects an estimated 20% of people with anxiety or mood disorders.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that women are more likely to use substances to self-medicate mental health problems and can be at increased risk of fatal drug overdose.
Treatment For Substance Abuse And Addiction
Recovering from a drug or alcohol problem isn’t easy, but it is possible. Most people who develop a substance use disorder require some form of professional treatment, such as counseling or an inpatient rehab program, to help them heal.
Getting treatment for substance abuse can help mitigate health issues caused by substance misuse, including fatigue and insomnia. In time, may lead to partial or full recovery—depending on the type of health issue and its severity.
Struggling with alcohol abuse or drug addiction can make a person feel like there’s no way out. If this describes how you feel, you’re not alone.
Recovery from substance abuse is a lifelong journey. For most, this journey begins with admitting you have a problem and giving yourself permission to ask for help.
Author bio: McKenna Schueler is a content specialist for the behavioral health company, ARK Behavioral Health, which owns a network of addiction treatment centers across Massachusetts. LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/mckenna-schueler-0a2a8113b/