How Substance Use Can Affect Women’s Health

Beautiful woman drinking a glass of whiskey and smoking a cigarette

By Hannah Bennett

Substance abuse is all-encompassing, as it affects women’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. And this can include substance abuse of many different levels — from the occasional cigarette to daily binge drinking, using drugs or alcohol will affect your health.

For some women, substance abuse can be detrimental to their lives and relationships. When alcohol or drug use interferes with a woman’s wellbeing, she may benefit from a women’s rehab program.

Other women may be going through difficult battles with mental health and are using substances as a way to self-cope, such as using marijuana to treat postpartum depression.

A study commissioned by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

(EMCDDA) found that 34.8 million women aged 15 to 64 in the EU have tried an illicit drug. The countries that see the highest rates of women’s substance abuse are France (33% of women), Denmark (30%), and the United Kingdom (29%).

How Does Substance Abuse Affect Women’s Health?

Many of the health effects of substance abuse, or the intensity of those effects, are different for women than for men. Below are some of the physical and mental effects you might see drugs or alcohol have on a woman’s health.

Premature Heart Disease

Drinking, smoking, and using drugs have been linked to cardiac complications, such as heart disease. Researchers have found that women experience more negative effects on their blood vessels and heart than men. 

People who smoke tobacco are almost twice as likely to have premature heart disease, and people who drink recreationally are 50% more likely to have premature heart disease. And this issue is not limited to older people, women who abuse substances are developing these heart complications early in life.

Immune System Suppression

Using substances of any kind will cause the immune system to suffer in women. Alcohol can decrease white blood cell count (which helps the body to fight illnesses and diseases) and cause liver failure. Other drugs can have negative impacts on nutrition, blood flow, sleep, and much more, all of which weaken the body’s ability to fend off illnesses and infections.

Suppressed Breathing and Heart Rate

Many drugs, specifically depressant drugs, suppress airflow and heart rate, which is known as respiratory depression. If left untreated or undetected, this can be potentially fatal as the body slows to extremely low or no breathing. Many things can cause this, such as an overdose, seizures from abusing stimulants, and more.

Mental Health Disorders

A woman who uses drugs or alcohol may become depressed, socially isolated, unmotivated, and lack confidence and self-efficacy. These factors and others can lead to the development of a mental health disorder. 

Panic attacks, anxiety, and depression have all been found to be more common in women who abuse substances. These problems often feed off each other, so the worse the substance abuse gets, the worse the mental illness gets.

Negative Impacts on Pregnancy

Women who use drugs or alcohol while pregnant are at risk of bringing their child into the world with several birth defects and health complications. One of the most pressing concerns is neonatal abstinence syndrome, which causes the baby to withdraw after birth since drugs or alcohol are no longer being supplied.

Effects on the Brain

Studies have shown that female brains experience a heavier impact by substance abuse than male brains. In a woman’s brain, substances can decrease brain volume, hurt her ability to make good decisions, and affect emotions. And these effects will last a lifetime: Even after long-term sobriety, changes in brain matter and function are still present, suggesting permanent damage.

Why Women Abuse Substances

Women face unique issues when it comes to substance abuse as compared to men. Here are some of the challenges women might have that lead to drug or alcohol use.

  • Intimate partner violence (IPV): Some women use substances to cope with IPV, which is any behavior in an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological, or sexual harm to those in the relationship. 
  • Co-occurring disorders: Many women who abuse substances also have a mental disorder, such as PTSD, depression, or anxiety. 
  • Stress: Stress can both cause and exacerbate substance abuse for women. It makes women much more vulnerable to using substances since they’re looking for a way to escape from negative feelings or anxiety.
  • The pressure of motherhood/being a caregiver: Women are often prescribed a persona of caregiver or mother. Because of this, women face more stigma when it comes to getting help for addiction because of unsupportive or even discriminatory responses from medical professionals and others.
  • Lack of social support: Research has found that women who abuse drugs often have less social support than men. They might come from an abusive relationship, a home where substance abuse was present, or lack the support of friends and family.
  • Economic burdens: Women earn less money and hold fewer jobs, which may be a barrier to treatment or accessing proper healthcare to prevent and treat substance abuse. Those in a lower economic standing are at an increased risk of using drugs and alcohol.

How to Provide Better Access to Treatment for Women

If women are going to get the treatment they need for addiction, they need certain barriers removed. For example, a single woman with a young child may not be able to go to treatment if she has no one to care for her child. To solve this problem, addiction treatment facilities can offer childcare, or help her to seek affordable childcare elsewhere.

Here are more ways that mental health and substance abuse centers can help women:

  • Offer community programs that provide social support for women.
  • Give free transportation for those who need it.
  • Have support groups, and specialized groups for pregnant women, single mothers, working professionals, and other groups.
  • Focus on emotional issues, such as trauma, in therapy.
  • Provide life skills development classes, vocational training, parenting classes, and other practical supplements to their recovery.
  • Help women to learn better coping skills from some of the things mentioned above so they can turn to healthy outlets instead of substances.
  • Have a sliding scale or reduced costs for women based on their income.

About the Author

Hannah Bennett is a content specialist for AddictionResource.net, an informational guide that provides resources for those struggling with addiction and their loved ones. Addiction Resource speaks on topics surrounding addiction, substance use disorders, and mental health disorders.

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