A few spoilers within
* Every three years the National Drug Strategy Household Surveys provide cross-sectional data on substance-use in Australia. The 2013 results showed that among past-year users, the percentage of women reporting the most frequent use of methamphetamines, cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis surpassed that of men.
* Impulsivity is a big driver of substance abuse. It’s long been thought to be a male trait but actually men and women are on an equal footing when it comes to inhibition control, which is the ability – or inability – to put the brakes on. Women also tend to act out their impulsivity in less obvious ways, such as through theft or promiscuity.
* Substance use in women often co-occurs with eating disorders, with different substances being better suited to different disorders. According to one three-year US study, 3% of the general population has an eating disorder, rising to 35% of substance abusers.
* Heavy drinking during adolescence damages the quality of the brain’s white matter, responsible for relaying information between cells, and reduces the size of the hippocampus, responsible for memory formation and learning. In girls, the effect of this damage tends to be poor performance in spatial functioning, which includes navigation, recognition of faces and scenes, and the observation of fine details. Boys tend to fare worse on focusing their attention.
* Critics consider borderline personality disorder to be a ‘dustbin category’ in which women who have been sexually abused (or experienced some other form of childhood trauma) are frequently placed. The ‘symptoms’ are actually just a collection of coping mechanisms and women tend to chaotically self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
* Women are largely excluded from drug tests by ethics committees because of the chance they might be pregnant. The same applies to animal studies. Consequently, substitute drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine, or drugs used in treatment, such as naltrexone and barbiturates, have often only been tested with the male experience in mind.
* Estrogen doesn’t only make substances more attractive, some studies suggest it slows down their elimination. This means estrogen-based birth-control pills might extend the effects of intoxication of drugs and alcohol. The flipside is, alcohol can raise oestrogen levels. In one study, blood and urine estrogen levels increased up to thirty-two per cent in women who drank just two drinks a day.
* When it comes to party drugs, women are more at risk of water intoxication and hyponatremia (low sodium) – which accounted for the deaths of Leah Betts in the UK and Anna Wood in Sydney.
* A study published in 2016 by the University of New South Wales pooled data from sixty-eight studies about drinking across thirty-six countries. It found that by the end of the last century, men’s and women’s drinking were about equal. Further, there was some evidence that women born after 1981 may be drinking at higher rates or in more harmful ways than men.