Given the stereotype that’s floated around for decades—”most nurses are women”—turns out to have statistics to back it up (per Health Career Institute figures, 9 out of 10 RNs are female), it likely would prove beneficial for those treating healthcare professionals for addiction to consider a 2019 Vanderbilt University study’s findings about women and addiction.
According to the research conducted, published in Science Daily, women’s hormonal cycles may not only make them more prone to drug addiction, but also more affected by triggers that lead to relapse.
Although nurses—both women and men—appear to be about as prone to substance abuse as the general population (which, on average, is approximately 10% or one out of ten), the Vanderbilt study indicates women do tend to get addicted faster than men and are more prone to relapse. Part of this involves female hormones, according to the team’s findings. The researchers determined women’s hormonal cycles can make them more prone to drug addiction, cravings and relapse, especially when fertility-related hormone levels are high – that is, high hormone levels make women react more strongly to environmental cues that can trigger relapse.
In the study, according to Dr. Erin Calipari, assistant professor of pharmacology at the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research, male and female rats were allowed to dose themselves with cocaine by pushing a lever, with a light set up to come on during dosing. “That’s similar to the environmental cues, such as drug paraphernalia, present when humans are taking drugs,” she stated. “When their circulating hormone levels were high, female rats made stronger associations with the light and were more likely to keep pushing the lever as much as it took to get any amount of cocaine.”
Ultimately, Dr. Calipari said, “females were willing to ‘pay’ more in the presence of these cues to get cocaine. The results are transferable to 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. It’s one of the few ways that comparisons can be made across species. We found that the animals will press a lever just to get the light — that environmental stimuli. That has value to them.”
One might ask, “How does this study specifically relate to nurses seeking recovery from drug addiction?”
Dr. Calipari explains, “There’s (now) epidemiological data that says women are more vulnerable (to addiction). We know they transition to addiction faster and have more problems with craving and relapse.”
Treatment centers specializing in helping nurses—as well as doctors and healthcare professionals—recover from addiction to alcohol or other drugs can take advantage of this research, if they aren’t doing so already, by, according to Calipari, “educat(ing) women about their stronger mental connections to places and objects. That may mean a higher chance of relapse just by, for example, visiting a place where they used drugs or holding the kind of spoon they used in the process.”
Addressing this issue of nurses and addiction more effectively in the future will likely produce more widespread benefits. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) points out the problems arising from nurses being addicted to alcohol or other drugs has multiple layers of negative consequences, because “the behavior that results from this disease (of addiction) has far-reaching and negative effects, not only on the nurses themselves, but also upon the patients who depend on the nurse for safe, competent care. Many nurses with substance use disorder are unidentified, unreported, untreated and may continue to practice where their impairment may endanger the lives of their patients.”
Increasing the focus on female-centric addiction research would be a wise step forward, according to Dr. Calipari. “The most critical finding of the study might be that while women are a population segment highly vulnerable to substance abuse, studies have focused pretty much entirely on men. Naturally, none of the hormones that can influence addiction or relapse would show up in an all-male pool of study subjects.”