Two glasses of wine being poured by someone with high alcohol tolerance

The Truth About Alcohol Tolerance

When you drink for an extended period of time, you can start to develop an alcohol tolerance. When left unchecked, developing alcohol tolerance and subsequent drinking behavior can lead to harmful consequences. If you or a loved one is developing a high alcohol tolerance, contact Washburn House at 855.298.3104 today. Our alcohol addiction treatment program can help you address your tolerance for alcohol and heal from addiction. Learn more about what is involved in developing alcohol tolerance, how it can impact your life, and what you can do to manage it.

What Is Alcohol Tolerance?

Your alcohol tolerance is how your body responds to the substance in different situations based on how much remains in your system and how efficient your body is at extricating it. Someone can have a low tolerance and feel drunk after just one drink, while another can knock back glass after glass without seeming affected. 

Typically, alcohol tolerance and withdrawal are prominent symptoms that point to a dependence on alcohol. This stage of addiction is when you require a drink to prevent experiencing withdrawal symptoms or simply function on a day-to-day basis. 

Factors That Influence Alcohol Tolerance

Your alcohol tolerance is affected by your drinking habits, genetics, overall health and gender. No one person is the same when it comes to how much alcohol their system can handle. There are a lot of factors at play including:

  • Genetics, gender and age
  • Frequency and amount of drinking
  • Your physical health
  • Family history of alcohol abuse

If you feel like your tolerance for alcohol is getting out of control, it’s time to get help. Treatment options include counseling, therapy and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous

Forms of Alcohol Tolerance

There are several different types of alcohol tolerance:

Functional tolerance

Functional tolerance is your brain’s way of compensating for the behavioral changes that typically come with drinking large amounts of alcohol. We recognize this phenomenon in those who can consume a lot without seeming intoxicated. However, despite what may seem to be an acceptable amount on the surface, the more alcohol you drink, the more likely you are to develop alcohol dependence. 

Acute tolerance

Acute tolerance refers to the tolerance you build within a single drinking session. It is a phenomenon where impairment is more noticeable right after you start drinking than later on in the evening. This type of tolerance often leads to drinking more since you won’t feel as intoxicated as when you began the evening. 

Environment-dependent tolerance

Environmental tolerance happens when you drink in the same place each time. A study published in Alcohol & Alcoholism indicates that individuals can better handle their liquor when their environment contains cues associated with drinking. 

When it takes place at the same location, their heart rate increases to a lesser extent; we see this happen with social drinkers, who take their cues from the environment around them. People might feel less intoxicated at a bar, where everyone else is drinking, and their body has been primed to expect alcohol than they would at an office party. 

Metabolic tolerance

Metabolic tolerance happens when certain liver enzymes get activated. As this happens, it more rapidly removes alcohol from the body—and while this might sound like a good thing, it has devastating circumstances. As the liver works to remove alcohol quickly, it will similarly work to remove

Although drinking alcohol makes us feel good temporarily, it is only due to dopamine release into our brain. When the dopamine wears off, we strongly notice its absence and crave any opportunity to feel that way again, furthering our desire to drink more. 

More than just how you feel when you drink alcohol, it’s critical to consider why you drink. Do you do it to have a fun night out with your friends? Or is it possible that you use it as a coping mechanism to avoid emotional pain? The latter scenario is more likely to drive you toward dependence and alcohol addiction. 

Dangers of Alcohol Tolerance

Even if you don’t develop alcohol dependence, several effects of drinking can wreak havoc on your mind and body. The more heavily you drink, the more damage you’ll end up doing to your body. 

Liver Damage

One of the most common outcomes of heavy drinking is liver disease. Alcohol usage causes four out of five liver disease deaths.  Drinking for years at a time can cause your liver to get inflamed and swollen. When your liver floods with alcohol, it stops being able to filter the liquid from your body. Over time, this can lead to fat build-up, inflammation and even hepatitis.

There are three stages of alcohol-related liver disease:

  1. Alcoholic fatty liver disease: this is where fat begins accumulating around your liver. 
  2. Acute alcoholic hepatitis: severe cases of this kind of hepatitis can result in liver failure.
  3. Alcoholic cirrhosis: when the liver gets to this point, even medical treatments can’t undo the damage. 

Binge drinking

Binge drinking can also have some severe side effects on your body. Many people in college engage in binge drinking behaviors. It’s what everyone around them is doing, so why not do it, too? 

Others might engage in binge drinking to try to avoid emotional problems. After all, if it makes you feel good, why not run away from your problems?

However, using alcohol as a way to avoid dealing with your emotions is likely to lead to addiction until you learn other coping methods. 

In the short term, it can cause alcohol poisoning and increase injury risk. Because you have poor judgment when you’re intoxicated, you’re more likely to get into an accident. Even just one bout of binge drinking can lead to organ inflammation and make it difficult for your body to heal from it. When you binge drink, your blood pressure goes up, you get dehydrated and you experience low blood sugar. 

Long-term, binge drinking can cause several different types of cancer and increase your heart attack risk. It also can lead to a suppressed immune system, osteoporosis, increased risk of stroke, depression, anxiety, psychosis and malnutrition. 


Alcohol tolerance is not the same as alcohol dependence, although they are very similar in that they indicate a deeper issue is present. 

As you are able to tolerate larger amounts of alcohol, you might start to drink more heavily. With large enough quantities, your brain changes chemically. That means you begin to feel more exhilaration when you drink, incentivizing you to drink more. However, in time, you’ll stop feeling nice when you drink, and instead of drinking to feel good, your focus will shift to avoiding the adverse effects of withdrawal. 

While no one is quite sure what causes alcoholism, certain factors tend to increase the likelihood of developing it. 

These include:

  • Having more than 15 drinks a week for men
  • Having more than 12 drinks a week for women
  • Binge drinking weekly or more
  • Having a parent who also lives with alcoholism
  • Mental health issues
  • Low self-esteem
  • High-stress levels
  • Living in an environment where heavy drinking is normalized

Getting Treatment for Alcohol Tolerance at Washburn House

Whenever you experience negative consequences from your drinking habits, it’s time to reevaluate what you’re doing. These negative consequences don’t have to be life-shattering. They can be as small as starting to feel uncomfortable with the peer pressure to drink more than you like. 

The sooner you get treatment for your tolerance, the easier it’ll be for you to recover. You don’t have to wait until you develop an addiction to get help.

Washburn House has multiple levels of care to help support you. Contact us at 855.298.3104 to learn more about alcohol tolerance.

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