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New Study Connecting Drug Use in Women to Hormone Cycles

Do Hormones Impact Drug Use in Women?

Recently, the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research at Vanderbilt University conducted a study to observe the relationship between the female hormonal cycle and cocaine addiction. The data from the study suggests that these cycles may not only make women more susceptible to developing drug addiction, but also more affected by the triggers that cause relapse.

These findings are considered to be particularly significant because up until now there have been virtually no addiction studies that account for these cycles. Essentially, the research suggests that women face a predisposition that makes it harder to maintain lasting sobriety.

Attention to Details for Women

Many people still do not recognize that women represent a particularly vulnerable population concerning addiction. After all, studies show that women experience higher rates of addiction following exposure to drugs.

However, Erin Calipari, an assistant professor of pharmacology in the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research, points out that addiction studies have primarily focused on the mechanisms underlying these effects in men. Therefore, a more comprehensive view of how women are affected is that much more important. According to Calipari,

“Women becoming addicted to drugs may be a fundamentally different process than men. It’s important to understand this, because it’s the first step in developing treatments that are actually effective.”

Calipari’s study found that, when fertility-related hormone levels are high, females tend to:

  • Learn faster
  • Make stronger associations to cues in their environment
  • Become more prone to reward seeking behaviors

Calipari believes that the next step would be to figure out specifics of how hormonal shifts affect women’s brains. Finally, in order to effectively address addiction in women, there would be data to create medications specifically designed to help women. When talking about the study Calipari notes:

“The biological basis of the disease may be the same between men and women, but in a lot of cases it’s not.”  

“We are developing a lot of treatments that may be only happening in men, and so these drugs are really effective in helping men recover from some of these disorders, but maybe not women.”

Calipari believes that with more data, the perception of treatment methods for women may have a chance to evolve. In other words, if there are significant differences in the underlying biological factors for drug use in women, then medications should be developed accordingly.

Historical Research Lacks Gender Specificity  

Another great point that Calipari makes is that gender specificity is scarce in medical studies. In fact, researchers have historically avoided using female animals for medical studies. This is specifically done so that researchers don’t have to account for influences from hormonal cycles on treatments. However, some believe this actually does a disservice by not taking this important biological element into account.

As a result of research that avoids female hormones, medication development has often focused on correcting dysfunctions in men. Some researchers believe this might actually explain why trying to treat drug use in women with available medications or treatments is not as effective as with men.

Using Female Lab Rats

Calipari’s work is included in a paper titled “Cues play a critical role in estrous cycle-dependent enhancement of cocaine reinforcement.” It was recently published in the Nature-affiliated journal Neuropsychopharmacology .  

For Calipari’s research, she allowed male and female rats to dose themselves with cocaine by pushing a lever. A light was set up to come on during dosing to imitate environmental cues such as drug paraphernalia that are present when humans are taking drugs.

What Calipari’s study found was that when female rats’ circulating hormone levels were high, they made stronger associations with the light. During these periods, female rats were more likely to keep pushing the lever as much as it took to get any amount of cocaine.

Essentially, Calipari states that during these hormonal cycles, females were willing to “pay” more to get cocaine in the presence of these cues. This can be translated into humans through behavioral economic analysis, which uses a complicated mathematical equation with values for the most and least a subject will do to get a payoff. According to Calipari,

“We found that the animals will press a lever just to get the light- those environmental stimuli.”

“There’s epidemiological data that says women are more vulnerable, but it’s unclear what the factors are. We know they transition to addiction faster and have more problems with craving and relapse. Now, with research like this, we’re beginning to isolate environmental and physiological causes.”

In time, Calipari hopes that further research into the relationship between drug use and the different biological elements for men and women can lead to more effective medications to offset the differences.

But even without these medications, treatment centers should use information like this to educate women about their stronger mental connections to places and objects. Some believe that this strength of association may mean a higher chance of relapse. At the very least, these intense connections created during hormonal cycles can make the recovery process more complex.

This is no surprise to the Orchid Recovery Program at Palm Partners. Our entire philosophy has been built around the idea that women have unique needs and respond to circumstances and stimuli differently. We believe that women should be given specific resources and opportunities that give them a better chance at developing lasting recovery. If you or someone you love is struggling, please call toll-free today. We want to help.

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