Rates of alcohol use disorder (AUD) have increased in women by 84% over the past ten years relative to a 35% increase in men. This substantive increase in female drinking is alarming given that women experience greater alcohol-related health consequences compared to men. Stress is strongly associated with all phases of alcohol addiction, including drinking initiation, maintenance, and relapse for both women and men, but plays an especially critical role for women. The purpose of the present narrative review is to highlight what is known about sex differences in the relationship between stress and drinking. The critical role stress reactivity and negative affect play in initiating and maintaining alcohol use in women is addressed, and the available evidence for sex differences in drinking for negative reinforcement as it relates to brain stress systems is presented. This review discusses the critical structures and neurotransmitters that may underlie sex differences in stress-related alcohol use (e.g., prefrontal cortex, amygdala, norepinephrine, corticotropin releasing factor, and dynorphin), the involvement of sex and stress in alcohol-induced neurodegeneration, and the role of ovarian hormones in stress-related drinking. Finally, the potential avenues for the development of sex-appropriate pharmacological and behavioral treatments for AUD are identified. Overall, women are generally more likely to drink to regulate negative affect and stress reactivity. Sex differences in the onset and maintenance of alcohol use begin to develop during adolescence, coinciding with exposure to early life stress. These factors continue to affect alcohol use into adulthood, when reduced responsivity to stress, increased affect-related psychiatric comorbidities and alcohol-induced neurodegeneration contribute to chronic and problematic alcohol use, particularly for women. However, current research is limited regarding the examination of sex in the initiation and maintenance of alcohol use. Probing brain stress systems and associated brain regions is an important future direction for developing sex-appropriate treatments to address the role of stress in AUD.
Keywords: Alcohol use disorder; Brain stress systems; Female; Sex differences; Stress.