How Drugs Affect Men’s Brains

How Drugs Affect Men’s Brains

Gender differences exist in the way drugs affect the neurobiology and behavior of men

Medical professionals are twice as likely to prescribe psychotropic drugs to women than to men, yet women were excluded from US drug trials until the 1990s. The Pharmacological Research journal stated in 2007 that the subsequent studies demonstrated a definite gender difference in regard to how drugs affect users’ brains. The clinical findings even motivated the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue new gender-specific dosage recommendations in 2013 for sedative-hypnotic drugs like Ambien. The range of differences includes metabolism, drug preferences, brain response and behavior.

Male Drug Use

Drugs, alcohol, smoking and other substances typically trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter most commonly associated with pleasure and addiction. Recent studies suggest that dopamine release from certain substances might differ depending on gender. Specifically, men might release dopamine in the ventral striatum, an area of the brain associated with drug reinforcement, while women release it in the dorsal striatum, an area associated with habit formation. This might suggest that men are more likely to abuse drugs as a way to reinforce neural patterns and dependencies, while female impulses might stem more from mood and habit. Other types of difference, however, also account for gender variance.

In a 2014 gender-related drug study, the Scientific American noted that benzodiazepine-class medications move more quickly from the blood to the brain in men, but men are less likely to experience side effects or compound dosage. Gender-specific hormones certainly play a role in the difference, but men also tend to filter and eliminate drug toxins more rapidly in their livers and kidneys. Men are also more likely to overdose on painkillers. In 2009, the American Family Physician highlighted several other differences, including the following:

  • Men have faster gastrointestinal motility, glomerular filtration rates and renal clearance
  • Men have more intestinal enzymatic activity and less sensitivity to certain substances
  • The larger body mass index (BMI) in men influences distribution and absorption

These processes relate to the journey the drug takes to the brain, and gender differences certainly influence the speed, potency and length of the neural effects. However, gender can also dictate tendencies in regard to the brain’s response. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America journal listed differences in stress response, modulation of the GABA-A receptor and mesolimbic brain reward systems as reasons for the gender-related variance in brain impact.

Drug Abuse Patterns in Men

In terms of patterns of drug abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism lists several differences specific to men, which include the following:

  • Higher rates of illicit drug abuse yet lower rates of prescription drug use
  • Motivation for prescription drug abuse typically involves a desire to get high
  • Less pronounced social stigma in regard to drug abuse and addiction
  • Male-related stigma tends to involve misconceptions about strength and will power
  • Average longer delay in time before drug-related difficulties become severe

Drug abuse in women more commonly involves the self-medication of co-occurring mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Men might abuse drugs for the same reason, but they are more commonly motivated by the simple desire to get high or escape their present realities. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that both genders have high rates of co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders.

Drug Abuse Treatment

When it comes to drug addiction, both genders benefit significantly from professional treatment, which helps produce the most positive recovery outcomes. A wide range of facilities exist, including some that cater to one gender or another, and many programs include gender-specific tracks in which group therapies focus on male or female issues and concerns. Furthermore, treatment professionals craft recovery plans that are specific to each individual patient and his or her specific needs. Though the therapies will vary according to the patient, several common approaches are often employed, including the following:

  • Supervised detoxification designed to minimize withdrawal symptoms
  • Integrated screenings and therapies for co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Holistic approaches to chronic pain and other conditions that might motivate drug use
  • Behavioral therapies that encourage more positive and adaptive thought processes
  • Motivational interviewing to help patients find personal reasons to change habits
  • Recovery tools to identify, avoid and cope with cues that trigger drug cravings
  • Improved life skills like stress/anger management and conflict resolution

Another gender difference is that men who complete rehab have a higher rate of relapse than women. Recovery is a process, not a destination, and struggles and setbacks are often part of the journey. If a relapse does occur, it is important for recovering addicts of any gender to reengage treatment and lean on support networks to get the recovery back on track.

Free Addiction Helpline

Our admission coordinators can provide help 24 hours a day for you or a loved one who struggles with drug abuse. We can answer questions, discuss options and even check health insurance policies for treatment benefits. If you need any type of assistance, please call our toll-free helpline now.