Alcohol Tolerance

Alcohol tolerance refers to the body’s response to prolonged exposure to liquor, its ability to both metabolize liquor, as well as its ability to rebound from its effects. Tolerance is a physical phenomenon that increases incrementally as consumption of liquor continues over a period of years. What emerges along with the increasing tolerance is the phenomenon of dependence. Dependence generally requires medically managed detox to alleviate initial withdrawal symptoms.

As a result of chronic drinking, the body endures damage to a large number of organs and organ systems. The first among them being damage to the liver. Ironically, there is a ceiling effect with regards to tolerance. This means after a long enough duration of abuse, the body’s ability to metabolize the liquor diminishes. This is called reverse tolerance. It occurs when the liver’s ability to process the liquor is so impaired small amounts lead to major toxicity and soaring blood alcohol concentration.

How Alcohol Tolerance Effects The Liver

Typically, the average temperate drinker can metabolize approximately 6oz of liquor in an hour. However, with people who chronically abuse alcohol, the liver (at least initially), learns to metabolize larger amounts more efficiently. The liver handles this load by producing excessive enzymes that allow it to absorb the alcohol in such concentration. It is this process whereby the liver develops tolerance, which is the fingerprint of any addictive condition.

Effects on the Brain and Central Nervous System

In addition to the liver, the brain also plays a part in the emergence of tolerance. This occurs because the brain works to suppress the production of specific neurotransmitters known as GABA receptors, which are responsible for generating sedation and sleep. Most sedatives, including benzodiazepines, work on these specific transmitters. In the wake of repeated dosing, a tranquilizing, sedating effect sets in, which expresses itself as the reduction of alertness and anxiety. Like liquor, sedatives such as Valium and Xanax has very similar effects on the body with regards to withdrawal and inebriation.

Alcohol, as such, is a central nervous system depressant, which is why its first effects are the alleviation of stress. As the person drinking continues to consume liquor either continuously or in larger and larger amounts, key signs emerge that dependence and tolerance are manifesting themselves. Most acute symptoms fade relatively quickly. However, the more subtle symptoms such as restlessness and insomnia may persist throughout many stages of residential treatment and aftercare long after abstaining from alcohol. Some of the features of dependence include:

  • Impaired memory, confusion, reduction in attention span.
  • Impaired motor functioning and coordination, slurred speech.
  • Euphoria or a sense of well-being.
  • Being overly talkative or overly animated.
  • Insomnia.

How Tolerance Can Vary

Tolerance also depends on the physical size of the person drinking. Large individuals who weigh more are able to metabolize larger quantities of liquor than small individuals who weigh less. How this manifests is larger people naturally enjoy a higher tolerance for liquor than smaller people, while demonstrating less obvious signs of intoxication. The enzyme responsible for breaking down liquor is alcohol dehydrogenases, which is a chemical that resides in the liver. The equation for exposing the presence of alcoholism breaks down quite eloquently. Generally, the extent to which this particular enzyme is present is proportional to the liver’s toxicity.

Types of Alcohol Tolerance

To date, there exist several different types of alcohol tolerance. It is worth taking a moment to establish what they are and how they differ from one another:

Acute: Typically, tolerance sets in over a period of time and over more than one drinking session, which essentially means that alcohol inebriation is actually greater when quantified earlier than later in one’s drinking session. As for the drinker, this usually means they will end up consuming larger amounts than they would need to consume otherwise.

Environment-Dependent: This refers to a geographical habituation. Here being in the presence of familiar people in familiar locations actually helps to increase one’s tolerance. Scientists don’t entirely understand this phenomenon. Nonetheless manifests in heavy drinkers and alcoholics and can even be observed in social drinkers.

Learned: Tolerance can also develop in tandem with a specific set of rituals or activities. Experts refer to this phenomenon as behaviorally augmented tolerance. One of the ways this manifests is with, say, a musician who learned and mastered their instrument while either drinking or being under the influence of some drug or medication. It is not unusual for people to relearn their trade, craft, or art, in the absence of their desired medication.

Environment-Independent: There are recorded instances where functional tolerance emerges even after consumption of large quantities of liquor, which exist independent of environmental influences.

Metabolic: This is when the body is able to eliminate alcohol from its system in an expedited fashion. Consistent, prolonged exposure to liquor initially enables the person to drink considerably more liquor than their weight, size, and mass would otherwise allow.

Alcoholism Treatment at Casa Palmera

Casa Palmera provides comprehensive treatment for alcoholism. If you or a loved one struggles with a drinking problem, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Contact us today.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.