Women Face Tough Challenges in Overcoming Addiction

By Harvard Mental Health Letter
Jan 11, 2010 – 12:14:11 PM

HealthNewsDigest.com – BOSTON—Women often find it harder than men to recover from addictions, reports the January 2010 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

They face other challenges as well. Women tend to progress more quickly than men from use of an addictive substance to dependence on it (a phenomenon known as telescoping). They also develop medical or social consequences of addiction faster than men, and are more susceptible to relapse after quitting.

Take tobacco use as one example. Nearly 71 million Americans—about 35% of men and 23% of women—currently smoke. Women who smoke are more likely than men to develop lung cancer, and they’re twice as likely to have a heart attack. But women find it more difficult than men to kick the habit, and are more likely to start smoking again if they do manage to quit.

The reasons for these gender differences are not clear. Some studies have found that women are more likely than men to smoke in response to environmental cues and triggers, while men are more responsive to nicotine (the addictive element in tobacco). This may explain why nicotine replacement therapy appears not to work as well in women as it does in men.

Other research suggests that kicking the habit is especially tough for women during the menstrual cycle’s luteal phase (which begins just after ovulation). Women who time their quit dates to occur during the follicular phase (which begins after menstruation and ends at ovulation) have a better chance of stopping smoking.

Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, notes that a better appreciation of gender differences in addiction might help identify ways to tailor treatment for women and increase their chances of recovery.


Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.