Addiction is defined as a disease that affects both the mind and the body, in which an individual compulsively and continually uses a mood altering substance or engages in a particular activity.1 Scientists have identified a variety of biological and environmental underpinnings that influence the progression of the disease. While both sexes are susceptible to addiction, current research shows that biological sex differences exist in engagement of addictive behaviors and substance abuse.

Numbers and Statistics

  • A nation-wide 2008-2012 data review conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that among adults 18 years of age and older, 7.8% (or 17.9 million) suffered from at least one substance abuse disorder in the previous year. 4
  • The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that illicit drug abuse in the U.S. has steadily increased over the last decade. 5
  • The treatment gap in the U.S. continues, as approximately 8.9% of Americans in 2012 needed treatment for a substance abuse problem but only about 1% of individuals received any. 6

Sex and Gender Differences

  • While substance abuse disorders are more common among men, women tend to transition from casual drug use to addiction more rapidly and have higher rates of relapse than men. 3
  • Generally, men report initial engagement in alcohol or illicit drug use for the thrill, or to enhance their behavior in social settings. Women, however report using these substances to alleviate stress or depression, often leading to a faster transition into addiction. 2
  • The basic brain and neural mechanisms involved in addiction are similar for both sexes; however, sex differences are present and can be accentuated by prolonged substance abuse and the progression of addiction. 2
  • There are clear physiological sex differences in the way that males and females respond to addictive substances. Estrogen, a primary female sex hormone, is known to affect a chemical in the brain called dopamine that helps fuel addictive behaviors. 3

Research Update: 2014

  • In a nicotine response study, researchers found that females had lesser subjective responses and greater physiological responses to nicotine administration than their male counterparts. This same study found that females responded differently to nicotine depending on which menstrual cycle phase they were in; suggesting that sex hormones can influence how certain drugs affect the body. 7

More Resources

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1. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction. Retrieved from

2. Becker JB, Perry NB, Westenbroek C..Sex differences in the neural mechanisms mediating addiction: a new synthesis and hypothesis. Biol Sex Differ (2012) 3(1):3–14.10.1186/2042-6410-3-14 Retrieved from

3. Bobzean, Samara A.m., Aliza K. Denobrega, and Linda I. Perrotti. “Sex Differences in the Neurobiology of Drug Addiction.” Experimental Neurology (2014): 64-74 Retrieved from

4. Substance abuse and mental health services administration, “Data Review- Past Year Mental Disorders among Adults 2008-2012 Retrieved from

5. Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings Retrieved from

6. Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings Retrieved from

7. Devito, Elise E, Aryeh I Herman, Andrew J Waters, Gerald W Valentine, and Mehmet Sofuoglu. “Subjective, Physiological, and Cognitive Responses to Intravenous Nicotine: Effects of Sex and Menstrual Cycle Phase.” Neuropsychopharmacology (2013): 1431-440. Retrieved from