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Updated on September 14, 2023
7 min read

Alcohol Tolerance

Ellie Swain
Elena Borrelli M.S.PAC
Written by 
7 Sources Cited
Ellie Swain
Written by 
7 Sources Cited

Are you finding yourself drinking more and more to achieve the desired effect? Do you feel like your tolerance for alcohol is increasing over time? If so, then you need to learn about alcohol tolerance and understand why this is happening.

This blog discusses what alcohol tolerance is, its causes, and how to reduce your tolerance level. By understanding these considerations, you can help ensure that your relationship with alcohol remains healthy.

What is Alcohol Tolerance?

Alcohol affects your thinking, behavior, and ability to function. A person who drinks more and more will eventually tolerate its effects.

Alcohol tolerance develops over time. It's when the same amount of alcohol can no longer produce the same effects. This requires you to increase your alcohol intake to feel the original impact. Heavy and long-term alcohol use often causes it.

alcohol tolerance
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How Alcohol Tolerance Develops

If you drink heavily for too long, the body adjusts to the increasing presence of alcohol. This is known as alcohol tolerance.

Alcohol tolerance can be classified as metabolic or functional.1

Metabolic Tolerance

When you drink alcohol, your body breaks it into a simpler compound called ethanol. This makes it easier to metabolize and eliminate.

The liver can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol every hour.2 However, some people can do it more efficiently than others.

Metabolic tolerance is the enhanced ability to process alcohol. A group of liver enzymes that get activated with chronic drinking causes this. They break down alcohol faster, reducing the time it stays active. In turn, it lessens the impact of alcohol on your body.

Functional Tolerance

People who have functional tolerance are less responsive to alcohol's effects. It's the brain's way of adapting to chronic alcohol consumption.

Functional tolerance can reduce alcohol-induced impairment. A person's drinking won't significantly affect their behavior and function. Drinkers with functional tolerance will show few obvious signs of intoxication despite high blood alcohol levels.

Types of Functional Tolerance

Excessive drinking mainly causes functional tolerance. However, other factors like the ones listed below can lead to its development.

Acute Tolerance

Most people develop tolerance after repeated exposure to alcohol. This usually happens over several drinking sessions.

Alcohol tolerance that occurs in a single drinking session is called acute tolerance. A person who has it will show decreasing alcohol impairment.

If you have acute tolerance, you appear more intoxicated when you start drinking. Later during the drinking session, you'll exhibit fewer signs of intoxication despite having the same BAC as when you started drinking.

Learned Tolerance

When you repeatedly perform a task under the influence of alcohol, you learn to do it more efficiently while intoxicated.

This is known as a learned tolerance to alcohol. It allows you to function almost at the same level as someone who hasn't been drinking.

Learned tolerance, also called behaviorally augmented tolerance, is a classic sign of functional alcoholism. However, not all people with a learned tolerance are high-functioning alcoholics.

Environment-Dependent Tolerance

Regularly drinking alcohol in the same place may cause you to develop tolerance. When you have environment-dependent tolerance, you can better handle alcohol if you drink in the same environment or somewhere similar.

But you'll lose your grip if you drink in a new place. This type of alcohol tolerance is common in social drinkers in the same social settings.3

Environment-Independent Tolerance

Drinking every day can lead to tolerance regardless of environmental influences. When place isn't a factor, it's called environment-independent or consumption-induced tolerance. It usually occurs in people with alcohol use disorders (AUDs), such as alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

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Why Some People Have Higher Alcohol Tolerance Than Others

People typically show signs of intoxication when they reach specific blood alcohol concentrations (BAC). Low alcohol tolerance means you show these signs at lower drinking levels than usual.

In contrast, high alcohol tolerance suggests that you can consume more alcoholic beverages and not seem drunk. For example:

  • Problems with memory and coordination usually appear after 2 to 3 drinks when a person's BAC is between 0.06 and 0.10%.
  • A person with low alcohol tolerance may experience them after just 1 to 2 drinks or a 0.01 to 0.05% BAC.
  • Someone with a high tolerance may not show these signs until after 4 to 6 drinks when their BAC ranges from 0.21 to 0.30%.

Factors That Influence Alcohol Tolerance

A person's tolerance can change over time, and many factors play a role. Your drinking behavior and environment can increase or decrease your tolerance.

The other factors that affect alcohol tolerance include:

  • Gender: Women usually have a smaller body build than men and get intoxicated faster. Men can drink more before showing signs of intoxication.
  • Body size and fat: The less you weigh, the more easily alcohol affects you. People with a lower body fat percentage also tolerate alcohol less than people with more fat.4
  • Genetics: People with a family history of alcoholism have a higher tolerance to alcohol.5

Alcohol Tolerance in Different Ethnic Groups

The liver produces two enzymes for alcohol metabolism: alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). Researchers discovered that people carry different variants of these enzymes, affecting their metabolic tolerance to alcohol.2

For instance, many Chinese, Korean, and Japanese people have ADH1B*2. This enzyme helps with a more rapid elimination of alcohol, decreasing their risk for alcoholism.

African-Americans have ALDH1A1*2 and ALDH1A1*3. These enzymes are linked to lower tolerance and an increased risk for alcohol use disorder.

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Negative Effects of Alcohol Tolerance

Having a high tolerance makes you less prone to alcohol's impairing effects. You might think it's a benefit of drinking. However, a high alcohol tolerance increases your risk for other problems.

Functional Tolerance Can Result in Dependence

Over time, this can lead to a physical dependence on alcohol. Alcohol dependence changes the way your brain functions.

Tolerance often leads to increased alcohol consumption. Since alcohol doesn't easily affect you, you'll likely drink more than usual. On the other hand, metabolic tolerance can lead to serious liver damage.

Consequences of Alcohol Dependence and Abuse

When alcohol-dependent people reduce their intake, they experience intense cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Most people would rather continue drinking than deal with them.

Unfortunately, this forces you into a cycle of alcohol abuse—both functional and metabolic tolerance cause serious effects. Unless you stop drinking, you might develop:

Tolerance and the Predisposition to Alcoholism

Meanwhile, people with high tolerance are more resistant to alcohol's effects. They're more prone to alcohol use disorders (AUDs). It takes more alcohol and a longer time before an AUD develops.

Ultimately, it depends on how much alcohol you consume and how frequently you drink. You can have a high alcohol tolerance and still develop alcoholism if you drink heavily for prolonged periods.

Studies show that a higher alcohol tolerance predisposes you to increased alcohol consumption and alcoholism.6

Tolerance as a Sign of Alcohol Use Disorder

In some cases, tolerance may already be a sign of alcohol use disorder. It suggests unhealthy drinking behavior, causing you to develop tolerance.

A health professional can assess you for signs of alcoholism. They can provide treatment options and help you with the next steps.

Alcohol tolerance can be reversible. Abstaining and reducing your alcohol intake can lower it again.

How to Reset Your Alcohol Tolerance

If you have developed tolerance but have not yet developed an alcohol use disorder, these tips could reduce it:

  1. Identify your drinking patterns: Take note of how much and how often you drink. List down exact numbers.
  2. Decide on a strategy: Choose whether to decrease your alcohol consumption or abstain entirely from alcohol.
  3. Set clear goals: Define and stick to your drinking limits (e.g., 5 drinks per week).
  4. Keep it real: Have realistic goals. Do not push yourself too hard by decreasing intake in a short time.
  5. Spread out your drinking: Set alcohol-free days when you are not supposed to drink and days for drinking.
  6. Slowly reduce intake: Taper off your alcohol consumption instead of stopping abruptly so your body can adjust.

If you have signs of alcoholism or withdrawal symptoms that appear within hours of stopping or reducing your intake, you may need alcoholism treatment.

Summary

Alcohol tolerance is a person's resistance to the intoxicating effects of alcohol. It depends on drinking behavior, genetics, and body size. High alcohol tolerance suggests that you can consume more alcoholic beverages without appearing drunk.

However, high tolerance increases your risk for other problems, such as functional or metabolic tolerance, alcohol dependence, and alcoholism.

You can reverse a high alcohol tolerance. Start by taking note of your drinking habits, set goals and strategies, spread your drinking, and gradually reduce intake. If you need help dealing with alcoholism treatment or withdrawal symptoms, talk to a health professional immediately.

Updated on September 14, 2023
7 sources cited
Updated on September 14, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Hoffman et al. "Mechanisms of alcohol tolerance." Alcohol and Alcoholism, 1989.

  2. "Alcohol Metabolism: An Update" National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2007.

  3. Fillmore et al. "Social drinking history, behavioral tolerance and the expectation of alcohol." Psychopharmacology, 1996.

  4. "Factors that Affect Intoxication." Bowling Green State University.

  5. "Alcohol Tolerance Associated With Family History." ScienceDaily, 2002.

  6. "Alcohol Alert: Alcohol and Tolerance." National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1995.

  7. Adams, S. "Why does your alcohol tolerance change over time?" Independent UK, 2021.

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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