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Is it Possible to Develop Tolerance to Alcohol?

You’ve seen it in movies, and you may have heard it from your friends. Being able to hold your liquor is macho, commendable, and the mark of a true hero. But it may also be the mark of someone with a serious problem with alcohol. The ability to drink more before feeling the effects, or passing out, is called tolerance. Some people are naturally more tolerant of alcohol than others, but it can also happen as a result of frequent drinking or high doses.

Learn more about how alcohol tolerance works and why it’s not necessarily a good thing.

What is Tolerance?

Alcohol tolerance refers to your body’s response to the psychoactive effects of alcohol. People with lower alcohol tolerance will start to feel the effects with lower amounts of alcohol than someone with high alcohol tolerance. There are a variety of factors that determine a person’s tolerance, including their size and weight, their history with alcohol, and genetic factors.

Natural Tolerance

Do you have a friend that seems to be able to handle their liquor more than others, even if they don’t drink frequently? A certain level of alcohol tolerance may have to do with genetics. Research indicates that a person’s genes can affect how well they tolerate alcohol. However, a naturally high alcohol tolerance might not be a good thing. Studies also suggest that people with high alcohol tolerance may be more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than people with lower tolerance.

This may be because they are more likely to test their limits and develop a taste for alcohol than people who feel the effect more intensely. For instance, someone with a low alcohol tolerance may feel sedated and tired after one or two drinks, making social gatherings less fun. They might be more focused on moderating alcohol intake to avoid uncomfortable side effects.

There are also physical characteristics that make it more likely for a person to have a higher alcohol tolerance. Men tend to have a higher alcohol tolerance than women on average. In general, larger people can drink more before feeling the effects than smaller people. This is true of most psychoactive substances.

Row of tequila shots

The alcohol content in your blood determines its effect on your brain and body. A single drink will be more diluted in a large person’s bloodstream than a smaller person.

Some studies suggest that alcohol may affect people of different genetic backgrounds differently. This can have to do with genetic, environmental, and cultural differences. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, understanding the effects of alcohol in ethnic minority groups can help researchers to address challenges in health care disparities when it comes to alcohol use disorders.

Functional Tolerance

Tolerance is not always something you’re born with. It may be something that you develop as your body gets used to alcohol. Frequent drinkers and people who have been drinking for a long time tend to have a higher tolerance for alcohol than infrequent drinkers. That’s because they’ve developed a tolerance over time. Tolerance indicates that you drink enough alcohol for your brain and body to adapt to its presence in your nervous system.

Developed tolerance is often an indication of alcohol abuse or mild alcohol use disorders. It may also be a precursor to a more severe substance use disorder. If you continue to use alcohol as you build a tolerance, it can lead to chemical dependence, which is when your body starts to rely on alcohol to maintain normal functions.

You may become tolerant of alcohol if you feel like it takes more and more alcohol to achieve the same effects as it did when you first started drinking. If you cut back or take a break from drinking, your tolerance will begin to go back down, and its effect on your will return to normal. If you spend a few days each week avoiding alcohol, you can prevent building up a tolerance to it.

However, that doesn’t make you immune to alcohol’s negative effects. If you binge drink on the weekends, it may still damage your body and lead to health problems, even if you don’t develop a tolerance, dependence, or addiction.

How Alcohol Tolerance Works

Tolerance occurs when your brain starts to adapt to the presence of a drug in your system. When alcohol reaches your brain, it starts to interact with a  naturally occurring chemical messenger called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. GABA is responsible for controlling excitability in the nervous system.

When you feel alert, anxious, or excited, GABA can help you calm down when it’s time to rest. Alcohol binds to GABA receptors and increases the effectiveness of GABA when it binds to its receptor. This causes more intense effects like sedation, loss of motor control, and a release of inhibitions.

With regular use, your brain may start to adapt to alcohol by changing the chemistry of your brain to be balanced around alcohol. Since it causes inhibitory effects, your brain might produce less of its own inhibitory chemicals. It may even start to produce excitatory chemicals to counteract alcohol.

Tolerance grows into dependence when you begin to need alcohol to feel normal. It’s no longer for recreation, but to avoid unpleasant psychological or physical withdrawal symptoms. When you are chemically dependent on alcohol, your brain has integrated into its balanced brain chemistry, so you are caught in a cycle of intoxication and withdrawal symptoms.

What Should You Do if You’re Tolerant?

If you believe you are becoming tolerant of alcohol, take a break from drinking for about a week. After this much time, your tolerance level will have gone down. If you decide to drink again, take it easy. With lower tolerance, smaller amounts will affect you more intensely. If you stop drinking and you begin to feel uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, speak to a doctor. If you stop drinking cold turkey, you might experience potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms, including seizures, delirium, and even death. However, with medical treatment, the threat of dangerous symptoms is significantly diminished.

Sources

National Health Service. (2010, October 21). Genes 'affect alcohol tolerance'. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/news/genetics-and-stem-cells/genes-affect-alcohol-tolerance/

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Ethnicity and Health Disparities in Alcohol Research. Retrieved from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh40/152-160.htm

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2007, January). 6: Definition of tolerance. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/neurobiology-drug-addiction/section-iii-action-heroin-morphine/6-definition-tolerance

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019, January 10). Alcohol withdrawal: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000764.htm

WebMD. (n.d.). Gaba (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid): Uses, Side Effects, Interactions, Dosage, and Warning. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-464/gaba-gamma-aminobutyric-acid

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