Understanding Alcohol Tolerance

When someone new to alcohol begins drinking, it won’t take long before its effects become apparent. Sometimes, only one or two drinks is all it takes to cause signs of intoxication in an inexperienced drinker. An experienced drinker — including someone who does not have a problem with alcohol — can usually drink greater quantities without demonstrating signs of inebriation. This occurs because of tolerance.

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How Does Alcohol Tolerance Work?

Tolerance is defined as the ability to drink greater amounts of alcohol while feeling fewer effects. Much like other drugs, in order to achieve the same high, you have to drink more and more. Just because you can drink more and still feel sober doesn’t mean you aren’t damaging your body, however. High alcoholic tolerance means you’re damaging your liver, your heart and your brain. Consuming large quantities of alcohol negatively affects medications, too, by either rendering them ineffective or toxic. You’re also increasing the risk that you’ll develop alcoholism.

There are several types of alcohol tolerance:

  • Functional tolerance — Have you ever noticed that some people are able to drink heavily yet never appear intoxicated? That’s functional tolerance. Functional tolerance is extremely dangerous, because it can lead to consuming more and more alcohol, which causes more physical harm. Chronic heavy drinkers are more likely to demonstrate functional tolerance.
  • Environment-dependent tolerance — When drinking occurs in the same place or in the same way, tolerance develops faster. In one study reported on About.com, participants who consumed the same amount of alcohol and performed a task in an office and in a bar-like setting were better able to accomplish the goal in the bar.
  • Learned tolerance — Tolerance develops quickly when you’re performing a task while drinking.

There are other kinds of tolerance as well. Acute, metabolic and environment-independent tolerances to alcohol are all well established. Regardless of what or where you’re drinking, over time, your body will trick itself into feeling like it can consume more alcohol safely.

Factors Affecting Alcohol Tolerance

alcohol toleranceHave you ever wondered if alcohol tolerance can be inherited, if men can drink more than women, or if alcohol tolerance decreases with age? The answer to these questions is yes.

Multiple studies indicate that animals bred to prefer alcohol are more likely to develop tolerance than those bred to dislike it. These studies’ findings mimic the results of one study that examined the sons of alcoholic fathers and non-alcoholic fathers. Sons of alcoholic fathers were more likely to have a tolerance and feel highly intoxicated at the start of drinking sessions (acute tolerance), than their non-alcoholic peers.

Women are also less likely to metabolize alcohol safely. That is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that women consume no more than one to two alcoholic beverages per day, versus two a day for men. Men’s bodies are better able to withstand the physiological effects of alcohol than women. Similarly, physicians often tell older adults to cut back on alcohol consumption, to no more than one drink per day. In some cases, alcohol might be off-limits entirely.

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