THE WHOLE POINT of conducting safety research on prescription and over-the-counter drugs is to ensure that the medications that people are consuming are safe. For the majority of drugs that get consumed on a regular basis, half of the “people” taking them will include women, since most diseases don’t discriminate based on gender. Strangely, most of the testing is exclusively done on men… meaning, of course, that they haven’t been properly tested for safety on women. Ugh. Why are we not surprised?
The obvious problem here is that women and men are different. Besides the fact that many women are smaller than many men, we also have fluctuating cycles. You’d better belief that the hormones that can reduce us to tears over spilling cereal can also affect how our bodies metabolizes drugs. Women also tend to have higher body fat percentages than men, which changes how the body metabolizes drugs since a lot of the drugs bond to fat molecules.
One study found that women are four times more likely than men to experience side effects from diuretics, and another found that women are 70 percent more likely to experience side effects on their skin from drugs. Women are more likely to have excess blood loss from blood-thinning drugs, as well as experience more sleepiness from antihistamines than men. Antipsychotic drugs used for mental issues are more likely to cause side effects in women. Overall, women are about twice as likely to experience side effects from drugs than men in general.
Great. Obviously there’s an issue here. Part of the reason why women are not used in more trials, however, is the exact reason why they need to be. Many women are excluded from safety trials because fluctuating hormones can alter the results too much or make them inconclusive, and getting pregnant or breast feeding is, of course, automatically bars women from participating in safety trials as well. Not to mention, that a lot of drugs going through trials have not been tested to see how they affect fertility, which could be an issue for a lot of women in their childbearing years. What a pickle.
Thankfully, some steps are being taken to remedy this situation and get some much-needed representation of women in clinical trials. A 2014 bill currently being reviewed in the House called the Research for All Act would require that research funded with federal grants would conduct trials on both female and male animals, cells, and tissues. While NIH-backed studies have had to include both male and female subjects for the past twenty years, studies including non-human subjects haven’t had to comply with such stringent regulations, meaning that most pharmaceuticals on the market have been tested on only male subjects (since many trials are still animal-only). If the Research for All Act gets passed, the disparity between female and male subjects in clinical trials will be that much closer to being rectified. In the meantime, maybe think about taking one Advil instead of two the next time you have a headache.