Alcohol Tolerance

Have you ever heard someone brag about their alcohol tolerance? When it takes you more drinks to get buzzed, you may feel as though you have some control over your drinking. However, alcohol tolerance is a sign that you are becoming physically dependent on the substance. It’s a precursor to many complications that can develop from alcoholism.

Types of Alcohol Tolerance

Alcohol tolerance means that your body suppresses its natural response to the substance, and it takes a higher blood alcohol content to feel alcohol’s effects. You may find that you can drink more without slurring your speech, walking unsteadily or vomiting. However, even though you may not feel drunk, your reaction times and judgment may still suffer.

The two primary types of alcohol tolerance include:

  • Metabolic tolerance – The ability of the body to process and eliminate alcohol more rapidly as you drink more, which decreases your blood alcohol content, or BAC
  • Functional tolerance – A reduced response to alcohol intake that’s independent of your BAC

Functional Tolerance

Most heavy drinkers develop some form of functional tolerance. However, functional tolerance can be unpredictable and transitory. It may happen in certain circumstances but not others, increasing the likelihood that you’ll end up in an unsafe situation. There are several types of functional tolerance, including the following.

Acute Tolerance

Have you ever felt as though you hit an “intoxication plateau” during a single drinking session? Perhaps you got a quick buzz that never progressed after the first drink. This is called acute tolerance. You may feel less intoxicated than you are, but it’s still unsafe to drive or operate machinery if you’re over the legal limit.

The Dangers of Acute Alcohol Tolerance

Acute tolerance can make you more likely to drink heavily, contributing to a binge-drinking session. Because you don’t feel drunk, you may increase the dosage to try to chase the high. But your peak level of intoxication likely happened when your BAC was about .05. Drinking more won’t bring back the giddy euphoria, but it could:

  • Increase your risk of alcohol poisoning
  • Impair your motor functioning and judgment
  • Cause you to make poor judgments based on your subjective level of intoxication
  • Make you more likely to drink and drive

Acute alcohol tolerance can quickly develop into rapid functional tolerance, which occurs when you have a few drinks within 24 to 36 hours after the initial dose was metabolized and don’t feel the effects as much as you might otherwise.

Environment-Dependent Tolerance

Whenever you expose yourself to a particular situation repeatedly, you become accustomed to it. As your familiarity with something grows, you stay regulated in that environment. For example, the first time you go to a new restaurant, you might feel nervous and excited. But if you become a regular, you no longer experience a heightened response when you eat there.

A similar thing can happen with alcohol use. If you usually drink in the same place with the same cues, you might need more drinks to feel alcohol’s effects. This may be due to the fact that the body begins to prepare itself for the drinking session when certain cues are presented. It’s a conditioned response that is designed to help your body maintain homeostasis even after you expose it to alcohol.

If you’re used to drinking a few beers after work, you may be surprised that drinking the same amount at a concert makes you drunk. At the concert, your body hadn’t received cues that you would be drinking, and it didn’t have time to prepare accordingly. This could be a sign that you have environment-dependent tolerance.

The Dangers of Environment-Dependent Tolerance

Developing environment-dependent alcohol tolerance can cause you to develop an alcohol habit without realizing it. You may increase the amount that you drink after work every day just to feel relaxed.

If the environment is not at home, you may frequently drive with a BAC that exceeds the legal limit. Along the same lines, many people who drink at home don’t feel intoxicated. Then, they may head out to grab a bite to eat or meet a friend without realizing that it’s unsafe.

Developing an environment-dependent tolerance can also make you more likely to get dangerously drunk, vomit or pass out when you’re in a new place. This can lead to hazardous and life-threatening situations.

Learned Tolerance

Learned tolerance is similar to environment-dependent tolerance. However, it’s more of a task-dependent tolerance. If you perform a specific activity every time you drink, learned tolerance makes you feel less intoxicated every time you do it. Some experts refer to this as behaviorally augmented tolerance.

The Dangers of Learned Tolerance

One of the most straightforward examples of learned tolerance involves drinking and driving. In fact, driving the same route after drinking contributes to this type of learned tolerance. You might feel fine leaving the bar, but if something unexpected happens, you could lose your tolerance and have trouble functioning properly.

Environment-Independent Tolerance

If you drink heavily enough, your body will develop a physical tolerance. This is another way that it tries to maintain homeostasis. If your body expects you to drink every day, it will down-regulate itself so that you need a drink to feel normal. It adapts to the influx of toxins to protect itself. This often manifests itself in a tolerance that remains high no matter where you drink.

The Dangers of Environment-Independent Tolerance

Environment-independence tolerance usually means that you have crossed over from a psychological tolerance to a physical one. This means that biological changes have taken place in your body to allow for higher doses of alcohol. You may increase your alcohol use across the board to make up for the tolerance.

Alcohol Tolerance and Alcoholism

Alcohol tolerance is highly linked with dependence. Once your body relies on alcohol to feel good, it’s a slippery slope toward alcoholism.

Some evidence shows that there is a genetic predisposition for alcohol tolerance and alcoholism. However, heredity isn’t always the cause. Increasing your alcohol intake for any reason contributes to tolerance.

Over time, heavy alcohol use and dependence can:

  • Cause metabolic tolerance, which eliminates alcohol faster from the body but damages the liver
  • Lead to a wide range of medical complications
  • Create or exacerbate psychological conditions
  • Make cold-turkey withdrawal dangerous

Being able to hold your liquor well is often a sign that your alcohol use is reaching an unhealthy level. If you can cut back, you can bring your tolerance back to normal levels. But if you’re struggling with reducing your drinking, you should seek support. It’s never too early to prevent the problems that can occur from alcohol dependence.


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