Alcohol is the most commonly used recreational substance in the world. In the United States, its legality and cultural acceptance have made it so that the vast majority of people in the country have had it at least once during their lifetime. Anyone who’s been around drinking culture enough knows the concept of the drinking game. It is a contest to see who can “hold their liquor” or drink without being significantly affected by alcohol. If you haven’t experienced it firsthand, you’ve seen it in popular media. This is essentially a contest of high alcohol tolerance. Several variables go into the amount you can drink before feeling the effects, including your size, weight, sex, and age.
However, significant alcohol tolerance may be a sign that your body is adapting to heavy or frequent alcohol use. It’s often thought of as a good thing to be able to drink a lot before getting drunk. But it may be a sign of a growing problem like a substance use disorder or alcohol dependence. But how much do you have to drink to develop a tolerance? How long does it take to reset alcohol tolerance?
Learn more about alcohol tolerance and how to avoid chemical dependence and substance use disorders.
What Is Alcohol Tolerance?
Tolerance is your body’s response to consistent alcohol use. Alcohol works by manipulating natural chemicals in the brain called GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid). GABA is a chemical messenger in the brain, and it’s part of your body’s rest and digest system. GABA binds to its receptors and opens a channel to a negative charge that slows down nervous system activity. Drinking alcohol, which is a chemical called ethanol, enters your brain and binds to GABA receptors. Alcohol increases the potency of GABA, which is why it has sedating and relaxing effects.
However, your body is highly adaptable; it can adjust to regular heavy drinking. Your nervous system communicates through inhibitory and excitatory chemicals. GABA is an inhibitory chemical that slows down activity when it’s time to rest and relax. A period of heavy drinking may cause your brain to respond by producing fewer inhibitory chemicals and more excitatory chemicals. This may start to counteract the effects of alcohol, leading to diminishing effects over time. Your body can also adjust the number of GABA receptors in your brain so that it’s hard to achieve rest and relaxing effects. If you increase your drinking to compensate for this tolerance, your tolerance will likely get worse.
How Long Does it Take to Build Alcohol Tolerance?
Tolerance to a drug can develop relatively quickly over just a few days, or it may take a few weeks or months to form. Drug tolerance refers to your body’s diminished response to a drug. Ultimately, your body becomes less sensitive to a drug or substance over time with regular use.
When you first started using the drug, whether it was for medical or recreational purposes, you likely needed a relatively small amount of the substance to achieve the intended benefits. With time, however, that dosage amount no longer gives you the same results. This indicates that your body has learned how to metabolize the substance more efficiently.
Tolerance does not develop the same way for everybody and for every substance. Some drugs, like benzodiazepines, are highly addictive, and tolerance can be expected to develop within just the first few days of daily use. Other drugs, such as antidepressants, are not known to be habit-forming, and people do not generally develop a tolerance to them. That means they will continue to respond in the same way to the same amount of antidepressant no matter how long they take the medication.
Tolerance, Dependence, or Addiction?
Tolerance, Dependence, or Addiction?
It is important to recognize that tolerance is not the same thing as dependence or addiction. The three concepts are closely related but vary in a few key ways. Tolerance means you no longer respond to a drug in the same way you did when you first started taking it. Developing a tolerance to many medications is actually considered to be a normal response.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that dependence is also not the same thing as addiction, though it is a step further than tolerance. Dependence means your body has become physically and/or mentally dependent on the drug to function. When you remove the drug from your system, you are likely to experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Dependence develops after tolerance and often before addiction, though it is not always a precursor to it.
Addiction is the most difficult response to substance use to deal with. It is a disease of the brain that has made you incapable of functioning without the drug. You are unable to stop using the drug even when you want to.
Addiction indicates the need for formal substance abuse treatment to achieve a full recovery. Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to prevent addiction from taking hold. Safely addressing tolerance is the first one.
How Do I Know If I Have Alcohol Tolerance?
How Do I Know If I Have Alcohol Tolerance?
You can determine if you have alcohol tolerance by evaluating how much alcohol it takes for you to feel the same effects compared to when you first started drinking. If you realize that you have been drinking increasingly greater amounts of alcohol to get the same buzz that you once did, then you have developed a tolerance for alcohol.
Researchers have found there are a few different types of tolerance that people develop in response to alcohol use. All types of tolerance are a result of your body’s adaptation to the substance, but the different forms of tolerance can be exhibited in different ways.
- Functional tolerance: This occurs when your brain adapts to the behavioral impairments typically caused by alcohol, and you don’t appear as intoxicated as you actually are.
- Acute tolerance: During one episode of drinking, your mind and body adapt to the effects of alcohol.
- Environment-dependent tolerance: This tolerance develops more quickly as a result of drinking that always happens in the same, familiar environment.
- Environment-independent tolerance: This type of tolerance develops in response to consuming greater quantities of alcohol, no matter what the location is.
- Learned tolerance: This occurs when you practice a specific task while under the influence of alcohol and learn to perform that task without seeming as impaired as you actually are.
- Metabolic tolerance: This is when enzymes in your liver become activated following heavy drinking, and alcohol is metabolized more quickly.
No matter what type of tolerance you may have developed, you want to be very thoughtful about how you proceed. Each type of tolerance is likely to lead to an increase in alcohol consumption and amplify your risks for developing dependence, organ damage, problems with completing tasks, and ultimately addiction.
Steps to Lowering Your Alcohol Tolerance
Developing alcohol tolerance can indicate greater problems for you down the road, so it is best not to ignore the signs of tolerance. A higher tolerance means you are likely to drink more at one time, which puts you at risk for experiencing adverse and potentially dangerous side effects from alcohol. If you have a developed an alcohol tolerance that you are ready to address, there are safe ways to lower it.
Here are steps you can take to safely lower your alcohol tolerance.
- Step 1: Identify your goals, whether they are to cut back on your alcohol consumption, take a break from alcohol, or quit drinking entirely.
- Step 2: Honestly evaluate your current level of alcohol consumption and how likely you are to experience withdrawal symptoms.
- Step 3: If you have not developed a dependence on alcohol and, therefore, do not experience withdrawal symptoms when you reduce alcohol intake, it is safe to greatly reduce or completely cut all alcohol use.
- Step 4: Consider abstaining from alcohol for at least 30 days. This allows all alcohol to be completely eliminated from your system, and your tolerance should disappear.
- Step 5: At the end of the abstinence period that you set for yourself, reevaluate your goals around drinking and decide if you would like to remain abstinent for longer or return to drinking in moderation.
If at any time during this process you begin to develop unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, insomnia, or seizures, it is important to consult your doctor right away. Such symptoms indicate that physical dependence on alcohol has formed, and it is necessary to participate in a formal detox program to ensure your safety.
Does an Alcohol Tolerance Break Work?
A tolerance break is temporary abstinence from a substance to reduce or avoid chemical dependence and tolerance. Periods of abstinence can help you avoid building up a tolerance by not giving your body a chance to adapt to the drug. Regular tolerance breaks and moderation are better than periods of binging followed by abstinence. For instance, binging on the weekends and avoiding alcohol during the week could prevent tolerance, but binging can come with some other health risks.
It’s important to note that it takes more than a weekend of abstinence to reset alcohol tolerance. Tolerance may begin to diminish after a few days, but it may take two weeks to return your tolerance level to normal. But how long does it take to build alcohol tolerance? Tolerance can develop quickly; a few days to a week of heavy drinking can cause it to take several beers for you to feel a buzz.
Alcohol Misuse and Treatment
If you are concerned about alcohol tolerance, you may also be wondering about alcohol misuse and the possibility of needing treatment. Alcohol misuse is a widespread problem across the United States.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), more than 17 million people were struggling with an alcohol use disorder in 2014. People who received appropriate treatment, however, can make significant recoveries. About a third of people who participate in alcohol treatment make full recoveries, and many others substantially reduce their use and report experiencing fewer problems related to alcohol consumption.
If you are concerned that you may be struggling with an alcohol use disorder, there are many resources available to help. Behavioral therapies supported by medication management and healthy skill-building workshops are provided by comprehensive treatment programs all across the country. If you are struggling to lower your alcohol tolerance or recognize the need for further treatment, don’t hesitate to get the help you need.