Researchers Found That Hormones Might Play A Role In Why Women Develop Substance Use Disorder

by Mika Doyle
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Your hormones can affect your health in so many different ways, and now new research out of the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research has found that hormones may be linked to substance use disorder in women, according to a news release. The researchers published a study in the journal Nature Neuropsychopharmacology that found that not only may women’s hormonal cycles make them more likely to be affected by substance use disorder, the news release said, but women are also more likely to be affected by triggers that lead to relapses in substance use. The researchers say their findings are incredibly important because of the lack of research about how substance use specifically affects women.

“Women becoming addicted to drugs may be a fundamentally different process than men,” Erin Calipari, an assistant professor of pharmacology in the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research, said in the news release. “It’s important to understand this, because it’s the first step in developing treatments that are actually effective.”

To study the differences in how substance use differs by gender, the researchers allowed male and female rats to access a substance by pushing a lever, according to the news release. When the rats accessed the substance, a green light turned on to simulate environmental triggers present for people who are taking substances, the news release said. When circulating hormones — which are primarily made up of hormones that have to do with the endocrine system — were high, the researchers found that the female rats made stronger associations with the light and were more likely to push the lever “as much as it took” to get the substance.

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The researchers say the environmental trigger — the green light — made the female rats willing to “pay more” to access the substance. “We found that the animals will press a lever just to get the light — that environmental stimuli. That has value to them,” Calipari said in the news release. And the researchers say these results are transferable to humans.

The Vanderbilt team certainly isn’t the first to link hormones to a greater instance of substance use. A 2014 study published in Current Psychiatry Reports found that estrogen may strengthen the effects of substances like cocaine and amphetamines. And the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) also says that scientists have found that hormones might make women more sensitive to substances than men. Both the Vanderbuilt team and the NIH say studies like this are super important because past substance use research has primarily focused on how substances affect men.

“Researchers historically have avoided using female animals in medical studies specifically so they don’t have to account for influences from hormonal cycles,” Calipari said in the news release. “As a result, medication development has often focused on correcting dysfunctions in men, which may explain why women often don’t respond to available medications or treatments in the same way as men do.”

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The NIH says not only were women left out of substance use research because their bodies were thought to be “more biologically complicated than men,” but researchers also thought women were too busy caring for families to participate in studies. Luckily, studies like the one out of Vanderbilt are starting to focus specifically on how substances affect women, so there are better treatment options for everyone.

But there’s some good news out there that benefits everyone, regardless of gender. In a separate study also published recently, a research team in Portland discovered a gene that could help scientists develop a medication to help prevent and treat alcohol use disorder. The researchers say there are currently only a handful of treatments for alcohol use disorder approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so they hope their findings help pave the way for the development for a medication that helps treat chronic alcohol use.

Substance use can affect people in so many unseen ways, and it’s wonderful to see researchers putting all of these efforts into trying to help people recover and live their best lives. With more treatment options available, people will have more options to seek out the treatment that works the best for them.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, you can call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357)