Cocaine and Gender: It Matters

September 14, 2012 by  
Filed under ADDICTION

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Brain images show that stress induces women's cocaine cravings

“It’s just a matter of will power.”  If you have an addiction, how many times have you heard this?  If you’re not an addict, has this thought crossed your mind or this clause ever escaped your lips?  While using a drug does, indeed, contain some element of choice, it’s far more complicated than that.

In 2010, about 22.6 million or 8.9 percent of Americans over age 12 had used an illicit drug or misused a prescribed medication in the past month. And drugs do not discriminate.  While the largest population using drugs are people in their late teens and early twenties, people in their fifties have increased their drug use significantly in the past four years. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug-related deaths have more than doubled since the early 1980s. More deaths–one in every four--and disabilities occur as a result of substance abuse than from any other preventable health condition. Cocaine, because of the immense euphoric experience it creates, and due to its effect on the brain when used, presents unique challenges when it comes to quitting.

Cocaine affects dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a brain chemical released into the space between brain nerve cells in response to pleasurable stimuli, for instance, when the smell of bread baking reminds us of good childhood memories, or when we look at photos of our latest exotic vacation. Our nerve cells typically re-absorb that released dopamine to put us back at baseline.  Cocaine, however, binds with the receptors that the dopamine uses to re-absorb it, leaving the dopamine in the space between nerve cells, thus prolonging this pleasure. Over time, this “reward center” in our brain goes haywire.  Cocaine users (and drug users in general) need more of a drug to feel the desired effect, and most things that once brought them pleasure no longer do.

A study published earlier this year, however, notes one thing that does matter when it comes to cocaine use:  gender. The functional MRI images of more than thirty subjects who were cocaine dependent revealed that craving involves different parts of the brain for men and women.  Drug cues, such as pictures of the drug or drug paraphernalia, stimulated certain areas of men’s brains, while stress cues, such as pictures of a personally-indicated stressful situation, stimulated different areas of the women’s brains. This study has major implications in creating effective treatments for men and women who are cocaine dependent.  Women may benefit more from stress-reduction measures to reduce cravings, while men may benefit more from traditional treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or a 12-step program.

Treatment aside, the good news is that although drug use is on the rise, cocaine use declined significantly from 2008 to 2009, in children and teens, at least. Rates of cocaine use in 12th and 10th graders dropped in half within the year, and rates decreased in 8th graders by about a third. Cocaine use spurs problems like cardiovascular crisis, depression and suicide (from withdrawal).  It also encourages paranoia.  Regardless of drug used, addiction hampers performance, impairs relationships and may result in death from chronic use, overdose or withdrawal.  Discerning effective treatments will help tame this beast that robs people of effective functioning, and steals life–literally or emotionally– from those who use and from those who love them.  

About The Author

Diane Dean is a registered nurse, licensed professional counselor and professionally-trained coach who likes to write about mental and physical health, communication, personal life enrichment and non-conventional healing. Please visit the following sites for more information on additions and other health issues:,, and

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