Man with liquor and alcohol tolerance

The Truth About Alcohol Tolerance

Drinking is nearly everywhere in our culture today. People drink on all occasions, alone and with others. Some people choose to do so simply because their friends are drinking. Others may drink in hopes of relaxing, removing any inhibitions and boosting their confidence. To some individuals, the key to achieving such a carefree feeling is increasing the quantity of alcohol they drink. However, when a person consumes more alcohol, they grow their alcohol tolerance, which is something to be wary of. 

What is Alcohol Tolerance?

Alcohol tolerance refers to how the body responds to alcohol. We can think of it in terms of being high or low. High alcohol tolerance means requiring more alcohol to feel its effects. In this case, a person would have to consume more alcohol to get the same experience they got when they first started drinking.

While some people may feel pride at how they can “really hold their liquor” or appear less intoxicated than others who consumed the same amount, building up your tolerance to alcohol has consequences. If an increasing alcohol tolerance goes unchecked, you may be well on your way to developing a dependence on the substance.. Through our alcohol-specific treatment programs at Washburn House, we help individuals understand the mechanisms behind developing alcohol tolerance and how it may impact their health long term. 

The Body Science Behind Alcohol Tolerance

The scientific definition of tolerance is how your body responds to the substances you use in different situations according to how much it stays in your system and how efficiently your body can eliminate it. For a person with low alcohol tolerance, one drink may be all they need to feel drunk or exhibit signs of intoxication. However, an individual with high alcohol tolerance may have drink after drink after drink without feeling or demonstrating any effects. This is due to the body’s desire to maintain homeostasis. To this aim, the brain adapts to the repeated intake of alcohol. It decreases its own production of neurotransmitter receptors with which alcohol interacts. 

Additionally, liver cells respond to repeated alcohol use. The liver produces more enzymes for metabolizing alcohol, leading to more rapid alcohol metabolism. As a result, the body rids itself of alcohol much quicker. A person ends up consuming more alcohol in an attempt to achieve the original effects of drinking. Ultimately, individuals who drink alcoholic beverages regularly may seem less intoxicated than others, even if they consumed similar amounts of alcohol.

Several Types of Alcohol Tolerance Exist

Alcohol tolerance can develop in several ways.

Functional tolerance refers to how the brain compensates for behavioral changes that result from consuming large amounts of alcohol. This phenomenon is typically displayed by individuals who can drink alcohol excessively without appearing intoxicated. On the other hand, with an acute tolerance, an individual may seem more intoxicated at the beginning of their drinking session than toward the end. Acute tolerance is the tolerance a person builds within one drinking session. Typically, this type of tolerance evolves into the “feeling” of intoxication, but not all alcohol effects. In most cases, acute tolerance leads to more drinking, impairing the bodily functions that don’t develop acute tolerance. 

Many people may not realize the impact their location can have on their drinking, but consuming alcohol in the same place each time can contribute to environmental tolerance. Research suggests that people can handle their liquor better when their environment is familiar and consists of drinking-related cues. Social drinkers, especially, take their cues from their environment. For instance, a person may feel less intoxicated if they’re at a bar where others are drinking than if they were at an office party. The body may be primed to expect alcohol intake at a bar. When the body anticipates alcohol or substance use, it accommodates it by speeding up processes. 

Finally, metabolic tolerance occurs upon the activation of specific liver enzymes. The liver works to eliminate alcohol rapidly. While this mechanism reduces the length of time that alcohol is active in the system and decreases intoxication length, it can also impact the metabolism of medications and other drugs, producing potentially harmful effects such as liver damage.

Genetics and the Environment Play a Part in How Alcohol Tolerance Develops 

No two people are the same regarding the amount of alcohol their system can handle. Instead, many individual factors are involved in how much alcohol consumption a person can tolerate. A person’s alcohol tolerance is influenced by their drinking habits, genetics, health and biological sex. 

Factors that can influence how alcohol is absorbed and metabolized and alcohol tolerance include:

  • Length and frequency of drinking
  • Rate of consumption
  • A family history of alcohol dependence and addiction
  • Weight and size (heavier-set individuals typically can handle alcohol better than people with smaller frames)
  • Biological sex (women have fewer alcohol-metabolizing enzymes compared to men)
  • Naturally lacking the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase

Enzymes Matter Too

Beyond these factors, an individual who naturally lacks the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase may experience low alcohol tolerance. This enzyme helps metabolize ethanol when the body ingests alcohol. The liver turns the ethanol into acetaldehyde, a substance that can be damaging to cells. 

Aldehyde dehydrogenase 2, another enzyme, helps with converting acetaldehyde into acetic acid, a nontoxic organic acid. A genetic mutation causes aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 to be less active or completely inactive, causing alcohol intolerance. As a result, the body cannot convert acetaldehyde to acetic acid. This causes acetaldehyde buildup in your blood and tissues and accompanying symptoms.

On the flip side is, “alcohol intolerance” or a reaction to an ingredient in alcoholic beverages can result in immediate unpleasant reactions from drinking alcohol, such as skin flushing and a stuffy nose.

Tolerance Relates to Alcoholism, Alcohol Use Disorders and Damaging Effects

Alcohol tolerance and withdrawal symptoms may be prominent indicators of alcohol dependence, as cellular adaptations and tolerance development are crucial to the progression of addiction and alcoholism. At this stage of addiction, people have to consume alcohol to function and complete regular tasks daily or prevent the onset of withdrawal symptoms.

Every individual can increase their alcohol tolerance until brought to the point where they need to ingest alcohol to feel normal. This trigger point may be lower for people with a family history of alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Research findings suggest that individuals who have a family history of alcohol dependence have an increased likelihood of developing a dependency themselves. One study concluded that children with parents who have an alcohol use disorder are more likely than others to develop alcohol use disorder symptoms themselves. Additionally, they are more at risk for anxiety disorders, depression, verbal and cognitive skills problems, and neglect or parental abuse.

Alcohol tolerance can ultimately:

  • Encourage increased alcohol consumption
  • Contribute to alcohol dependence and the risk of alcoholism
  • Play a part in the ineffectiveness of medications
  • Contribute to the increased toxicity of other substances
  • Impair performance of tasks
  • Lead to liver damage, alcoholic fatty liver disease, or alcoholic cirrhosis
  • Cause damage to other organs 

Understanding What Tolerance Really Means 

The truth about alcohol tolerance is that contrary to popular beliefs within drinking culture, being able to “hold your liquor” is not as impressive as many people may think. If you find yourself drinking more alcohol over time and experiencing negative consequences due to your drinking habits, you may need to reevaluate your actions. When your reevaluation allows you to recognize that increased alcohol use can damage your mind and body even if you cannot feel alcohol-induced changes, consider seeking professional treatment for alcohol abuse. 

It’s important to understand that you do not have to wait until you’ve developed an alcohol use disorder or addiction to get help for your drinking behaviors. The sooner you receive treatment for your alcohol tolerance, the easier your recovery can be. Even if you have a high alcohol tolerance, treatment can be much easier to endure if you haven’t developed alcoholism. 

While you can work to help yourself by ceasing drinking alcohol for a while to reset your tolerance, your safest bet is to get treatment from an experienced addiction professional. Whether you need medical drug detox, an inpatient stay, outpatient care or other options, Washburn House offers multiple treatment programs to support you no matter your relationship with alcohol and where you are on your sobriety journey.

Take Back Control of Your Life With Washburn House

A person who excessively drinks to achieve a high that seems elusive demonstrates a lack of control over their alcohol intake. You can regain control with the help of an expert addiction specialist. At Washburn House, we evaluate your tolerance to alcohol and determine the level of treatment that will work best.

At this addiction treatment center, clinicians provide a higher level of care. We implement a variety of effective research-based and holistic programs. Treatment options include:

A call to Washburn House at 844.678.2446 allows you to understand better how alcohol consumption can impact your body and mind, learn the truth about tolerance, and safely end harmful drinking habits.

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