Alcohol Tolerance: How to Address and Decrease It Safely

Medically Reviewed

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.

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.

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.

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.

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