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Alcohol Tolerance | Understanding The Effects Of Alcohol Tolerance

Published on August 31, 2021
Understanding The Effects Of Alcohol Tolerance

Alcohol tolerance is caused by chronic alcohol consumption. After drinking alcohol regularly, you may feel like alcohol is not affecting you as much, or that you need to drink more to get the same effects. These are symptoms of alcohol tolerance.

Alcohol tolerance is often a sign of alcohol dependence, as well as alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Alcohol tolerance can lull people into a false sense of security. It can lead people to believe they are less intoxicated than they actually are. It can also promote dangerous drinking behaviors, and lead to a number of health problems down the road.

Misconceptions About Alcohol Tolerance

An alcohol tolerant person will still experience high blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels when drinking. Tolerance can take away the signs of intoxication, but a person drinking alcohol will still be legally intoxicated.

A tolerant person will still experience physical and mental impairment when drinking large amounts of alcohol. Their ability to make decisions and operate machinery (such as driving cars) will still be reduced, even if they feel otherwise.

Types Of Alcohol Tolerance

Functional tolerance is your body’s response to large amounts of alcohol in your system. The more you drink, the more your body tries to adapt and function despite the presence of alcohol.

In extreme cases, tolerance can happen despite extremely high blood alcohol concentration, blood alcohol content, or BAC levels. A person with very high BAC levels and high tolerance may not feel that drunk, which can have dangerous consequences.

Acute Tolerance

Acute tolerance happens when the effects of alcohol wear off during a single drinking session. A person with acute tolerance may feel much less drunk 2 hours after drinking compared to 10 minutes after drinking, even though their BAC level is around the same.

Acute tolerance can lead to excessive drinking in a single session, also known as binge drinking, to achieve the same effects. This may increase the chances of alcohol poisoning and other acute effects.

Metabolic Tolerance

Alcohol’s main ingredient, ethanol, is usually metabolized (broken down) by the liver. A person who practices chronic or heavy drinking may activate different enzymes in the liver that break down alcohol faster. 

This can lead to metabolic tolerance, where you feel the effects of alcohol for a shorter amount of time. Metabolic tolerance can lead to drinking more often. The enzymes activated by heavy drinking can also reduce the effectiveness of other substances, such as painkillers.

Learned Tolerance

Practicing a task while drunk may help fight off the impairment of alcohol. It may also help you appear more sober than you actually are. This is known as learned tolerance.

Learned tolerance can add to the false sense of confidence people feel when intoxicated. A person who often drives after having a few alcoholic beverages may feel they are “practiced” enough to not be concerned about driving home drunk.

However, drunk drivers are far more likely to be involved in fatal car accidents than sober drivers. This includes alcohol-tolerant drivers who are still legally intoxicated.

Inherited Or Genetic Tolerance

Factors such as body weight and diet can affect how tolerant a person naturally is to alcohol. Some people lack the enzyme dehydrogenase, which helps break down alcohol and therefore increases tolerance. 

People who do not have dehydrogenase often have flushed skin after only a couple drinks. Dehydrogenase is passed down genetically. Many people of East Asian descent lack the dehydrogenase gene, leading this phenomenon to adopt the nickname “Asian glow.”

Natural tolerance is not usually included when talking about alcohol tolerance. Alcohol tolerance usually refers to functional tolerance, which is built up over time as a result of long-term alcohol use.

Physical Effects Of Tolerance

Alcohol tolerance can promote poor decisions and risky behaviors. It can also cause physical damage, as your organs will still be affected by heavy alcohol use even if you do not feel the effects of alcohol.

Damage to the liver, heart, pancreas and other vital organs can happen from heavy drinking and alcohol tolerance. You may also be at a higher risk of certain throat, breast, and colon cancers

Alcohol Tolerance, Dependence, & Withdrawal

Chronic drinking can cause both tolerance and dependence. Alcohol dependence happens when your body cannot function without alcohol in the system. 

Tolerance and dependence are both signs of a chronic alcohol use disorder, where you cannot stop drinking even if you try.

Dependence can lead to alcohol withdrawal if you try to quit drinking. Alcohol withdrawal can be painful and even life-threatening in some cases, with symptoms such as:

Tolerance and dependence do not always happen at the same time. A person who drinks heavily may only have one or the other. However, heavy drinking leads to an increased risk of both conditions as well as withdrawal.

Treating Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Tolerance is often a sign of alcohol use disorder, which may be treated with a dedicated treatment program. To find a treatment for alcohol tolerance and AUD that works for you, talk to your healthcare professional or contact us today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.
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