What is Functional Tolerance?

Last updated Monday, October 16th, 2023

What is Functional Tolerance?

Understand the Causes and Consequences of Alcohol Tolerance

Are you able to drink alcohol without feeling the intoxicating effects too strongly? It’s probably because you’re developing a functional tolerance to it. The human body can remarkably adapt to any intoxicant you consume regularly as long as it’s not a fatal dose. The downside is this resistance can force you to consume much more alcohol to enjoy the intoxicating effects for longer. It looks impressive to be the one who can party all night long, but your body is going to pay a bigger price. The more alcohol you consume, the faster you sabotage your liver.

Functional tolerance can be the gateway to recklessness and addiction. Drunk drivers who get into fatal accidents often turn out to be individuals who put too much faith in their functional tolerance. You could wreck your life or destroy someone else’s life by crossing your limits.

So it’s important to know your body’s limits and consume alcohol responsibly. In this article, we’ll dive deep into the causes and consequences of alcohol tolerance.

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What is Alcohol Tolerance?

Alcohol tolerance occurs when you experience weaker intoxication effects after consuming alcohol regularly. So you may be less likely to throw up, pass out, or wake up with a terrible headache the next day.

Here are the main factors influencing alcohol tolerance:

  •       Genetics
  •       Gender
  •       Age
  •       Drinking frequency
  •       Physical health
  •       Family history of alcohol abuse

Types of Alcohol Tolerance

Here are the four main types of alcohol tolerance you should know about:

Functional tolerance – Your brain is highly dynamic in adapting its behavioral responses in different situations. It can help you control your physical and mental reactions to intoxication to a certain degree. People around you can easily be fooled into believing that you’re not too impaired. However, if you keep drinking often and for longer sessions, your functional tolerance is becoming a stepping stone to dysfunctional dependence.

Acute tolerance – How much alcohol can you drink in a single drinking session? Acute tolerance holds the answer. You may feel the intoxicating effects more strongly when you have your first few drinks. The intoxication starts diminishing as time passes, which leads to individuals drinking heavily as the session goes on.

Environment-dependent tolerance – Most people are social drinkers. They enjoy letting loose with their colleagues at a local bar after work or celebrating the weekend with friends at a house party. Their drinking habits take strong cues from the environment. In these social settings, alcohol is easily accessible and everyone is encouraged to indulge to be part of the experience. Drinking is an expected behavior with a socially rewarding outcome. So you’re more carefree and equipped to handle your alcohol much better in these scenarios.

Metabolic tolerance – Your liver plays the most vital role in processing alcohol safely. It produces specific liver enzymes to break down the toxic by-products of alcohol inside your body. Your liver is like a bodyguard against all toxins. And your body can’t be fooled into thinking it’s anything else even though your mind may believe something else. The more you drink, the liver adapts to remove alcohol from your body at a faster pace. It means you’ll have a short-lived high, which can become a trigger for drinking more alcohol to sustain the intoxication.

Dopamine and Alcohol Consumption

Your brain is full of neurotransmitters that communicate instructions throughout your body. Dopamine is a vital neurotransmitter that can affect your mood, memory, and perception of pain and pleasure. It influences both your survival and aspirational drives like food, sex, and exercise.

Alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine and uplifts your mood initially. However, prolonged consumption reduces the number of dopamine receptors in the body. Your brain gets depleted of its natural ability to produce dopamine. This triggers a cycle of craving and dependence. You need to drink more alcohol to stimulate dopamine release over time.

Emotional Reasons for Drinking

Do you need a drink to feel happy or numb the pain? Chances are you’re developing an emotional dependence on alcohol.

Alcohol artificially stimulates your dopamine levels to improve your mood. It can inhibit your judgment and memory, which can relieve you from the burden of heavy emotions temporarily.

Alcohol can become a dangerous coping mechanism. It prevents you from processing difficult emotions and makes you avoid challenges. Prolonged alcohol consumption sabotages the balance of neurotransmitters in your brain. It’s important to identify what emotional triggers you have that activate your alcohol cravings.

Consequences of Heavy Drinking

A man sitting on an arm chair in his living room with a glass of liquor. He looks sad.Here are some of the most dangerous consequences of heavy drinking:

  •       Alcoholic fatty liver disease
  •       Acute alcoholic hepatitis
  •       Alcoholic cirrhosis
  •       Cancer
  •       Weakened immune system
  •       Osteoporosis
  •       Stroke
  •       Anxiety
  •       Depression
  •       Psychosis

Alcohol Tolerance vs. Alcohol Dependence

It’s important to know how alcohol dependence and alcohol tolerance are different from each other yet linked together. Alcohol tolerance reduces the impact of intoxication, which allows you to drink more. It’s harder for people to notice you’re intoxicated. But alcohol dependence happens when you need some quantity of alcohol to feel normal. It comes with several side withdrawal effects based on the severity of your addiction.

Alcohol tolerance is usually the gateway to alcohol dependence. You start craving more alcohol to feel intoxicated, which sabotages your nervous system creating an addiction.

Factors Leading to Alcoholism

Here are the leading factors that pave the path to alcoholism:

  •       High alcohol consumption
  •       Frequent binge drinking
  •       Family history of alcoholism
  •       Mental health issues
  •       Low self-esteem
  •       High stress levels
  •       Normalized heavy drinking environments

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between alcohol tolerance and dependence?

Alcohol tolerance is your ability to handle alcohol without feeling strong intoxication effects. On the other hand, alcohol dependence is your inability to feel normal without consuming some amount of alcohol.

Can genetics make me more or less tolerant to alcohol?

The ability to process alcohol properly is governed by a combination of two gene variants – ADH1B and ALDH2. They help produce the enzymes needed to digest the toxic byproducts of alcohol in your system. People of East Asian descent tend to lack these specific gene variants, which makes them less tolerant to alcohol.

How does age affect alcohol tolerance?

Yes. Your liver health deteriorates as you age, which makes it harder to process alcohol. You also lose body muscle and water content over time. So your blood can’t dilute the volume of alcohol as efficiently anymore. These factors lead to alcohol intolerance.

Is there a safe level of alcohol consumption?

Yes. The CDC recommends no more than two standard drinks per day for men. Women should have no more than one standard drink per day. The standard drink volume may change depending on the kind of alcohol you’re having.

How can I reduce my alcohol tolerance?

Be mindful of the quantity and frequency of your drinking to avoid alcohol tolerance. Avoid heavy drinking sessions or drinking every day.

Are there any warning signs that my alcohol tolerance is becoming a problem?

Here are some warning signs showing that alcohol tolerance is causing a problem:

  •       Forgetting many events that happened during your drinking sessions
  •       Drinking more or longer than the limits you’ve set
  •       Getting annoyed when you don’t get to drink
  •       Dealing with frequent hangovers
  •       Having cravings for alcohol
  •       Using alcohol as an emotional coping mechanism

What can I do if I suspect I have developed alcohol dependence?

Talk to your trusted friends and family members to get some insight about your drinking habits. You can reach out to your doctor or therapist. They’ll assess the severity of your addiction and help you join a program to safely get rid of your alcohol dependence.

Is it possible to reverse liver damage caused by heavy drinking?

There are some cases of alcoholic fatty liver and alcoholic hepatitis that can be reversed. However, severe cases of alcoholic hepatitis and liver cirrhosis cannot be fixed. Only a liver transplant could solve these issues.

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