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What Does High Tolerance Mean?

High tolerance refers to how much of a drug or alcohol you can consume before it affects your functionality. Regular drug users and heavy drinkers tend to develop higher tolerances for drugs and alcohol because, the more you take drugs and/or drink (and the more often), the higher your tolerance becomes. This means that the drugs or alcohol may take longer to cause impairment.

But just because you develop a high tolerance does not mean that drugs or alcohol won’t affect you. There are still side effects that take a toll on your physical and mental health. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol or substance use, reach out for professional help. 

What Causes High Drug or Alcohol Tolerance? 

Substance use and heavy drinking can lead to significant health problems. This becomes especially true when your tolerance increases. You may take more drugs or drink more alcohol to achieve the same high and drunk effects.

High drug or alcohol tolerance happens with drug and alcohol consumption that increases over time. But that’s not the only factor. Studies find that your external environment may also play a role in your tolerance.

For example, if you continue to drink in familiar environments, your central nervous system will start to anticipate alcohol when you’re in that setting. And that hyper-excitement can counter some of the alcohol’s effects.

Other factors like your weight, height, age, gender, food intake, and more also affect your tolerance.

When your tolerance is higher, your body breaks down alcohol differently. When you consume alcohol, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase that lives in your liver breaks down the ethanal. It metabolizes it to acetaldehyde and then to acetic acid. If you drink too much too fast, you can get drunk because your body can’t break it down at the same pace.

If you develop a high tolerance, your body may have an easier time breaking down the alcohol in your system.

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Types of Drug Tolerances

There are different types of drug tolerances. Here are three:

Metabolic Tolerance

Metabolic tolerance refers to a specific dose of the drug that causes a lower brain concentration in tolerant people than it does in non-tolerant people.

Pharmacodynamic Tolerance

Pharmacodynamic tolerance refers to one of two things:

  1. The adaptive changes in your receptor binding
  2. The processes that lessen or cancel out the effects of the drug on your receptor-mediated signaling pathways

Tachyphylaxis

Tachyphylaxis refers to being so continuously or repeatedly exposed to a drug that you develop a weakened pharmacological response to it.

Types of Alcohol Tolerances

There are different types of alcohol tolerances, as well. Here are six:

Functional Tolerance

Functional tolerance refers to one’s decreased responsiveness to alcohol, regardless of their rate of metabolism. It is defined by the duration of alcohol exposure.

Acute Tolerance

Acute tolerance happens with a single exposure to alcohol. Your response to alcohol is measured within minutes of consuming it.

Environment-Dependent Tolerance

Environment-dependent tolerance refers to your ability to change your disposition of ethanal based on your environment.

Learned Tolerance

Learned tolerance refers to your ability to learn behaviors to overcome alcohol’s effects and take on tasks.

Environmental-Independent Tolerance

Unlike environment-dependent tolerance, environmental-independent tolerance refers to other factors that have effects on your tolerance. For example, this could mean changes in your neuronal sensitivity to ethanol.

Metabolic Tolerance

Metabolic tolerance refers to your body’s ability to metabolize a drug or alcohol and clear it from your system quickly.

Who is at Risk of Developing a High Tolerance?

People who are at risk of developing a high tolerance are those who drink a lot. People who have a history of family drug and alcohol use are also at a higher risk. Likewise, people with a history of mental health issues may be at a higher risk.

College students tend to also be at a higher risk of developing a high tolerance. This is because binge drinking is common among college students. In fact, about nine percent of full-time college students (ages 18 to 22) have AUD.

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Is Having a High Tolerance to Drugs or Alcohol Bad?

Having a high tolerance to drugs and alcohol is not necessarily bad. It simply means that if you consume a constant amount, it produces a lesser effect over time. And it means that you need more to produce the same effect.

While this in and of itself isn’t bad, it does become dangerous. If you have a high tolerance to alcohol, for example, you may find yourself drinking more and more. This, of course, can lead to alcohol misuse and even alcohol addiction.

Dangers of Having a High Alcohol Tolerance 

If you have a high tolerance to alcohol, in order to achieve the same drunk effect, you will need to drink more and more. This can lead to alcohol use disorder (AUD). This isn’t uncommon, either.

In 2019 alone, 25.8 percent of adults (ages 18 and up) reported binge drinking in the past month. Another 6.3 percent said that they’d engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month. And about 14.1 million adults in the United States have AUD.

Dangers of Having a High Drug Tolerance

Having a high drug tolerance also means that you’ll need to consume more drugs in order to achieve the same high effect. This can lead to a drug overdose that can take a significant toll on your health. It can also claim your life.

Addiction vs. High Tolerance

There’s a key difference between having an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol and having a high tolerance. Not everyone who has a high tolerance for drugs and alcohol is addicted. And not everyone who is addicted necessarily has a high tolerance.

Symptoms of Drug Addiction

Symptoms of drug addiction include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Feeling the need to use the drug regularly — and more to achieve the same effect
  • Having intense, overwhelming cravings for the drug
  • Maintaining a supply of the drug
  • Spending a lot of money on the drug
  • Letting work and family obligations fall to the wayside because of the drug
  • Letting go of hobbies and passions because of the drug
  • Continuing to use the drug despite physical and mental health problems it causes
  • Driving or engaging in other risky activities while under the influence of the drug
  • Failing in attempts to quit using the drug
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms while not taking the drug

Symptoms of Alcoholism

Symptoms of alcoholism include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Not being able to cut back on the amount of alcohol you consume
  • Not being able to quit drinking
  • Spending the bulk of your time drinking
  • Craving alcohol
  • Letting work and family obligations fall to the wayside
  • Continuing to drink despite the physical, mental, social, and interpersonal problems doing so causes
  • Drinking and driving
  • Developing a high tolerance to alcohol so you have to drink more to feel drunk
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit drinking alcohol

Ways to “Reset” Your Tolerance to Drugs or Alcohol 

You can reset your tolerance to drugs and alcohol by cutting back or eliminating your intake. Consuming less over time will lower your tolerance back down. Cutting it out completely will also do the same.

If you develop withdrawal symptoms, seek professional treatment. It’s not always safe to cut out drugs and alcohol cold turkey. A professional can help you navigate the road to recovery safely.

Treatment Options for Drug & Alcohol Addiction

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug or alcohol use, reach out to your healthcare provider for medical advice immediately. Rehab centers, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), support groups, and holistic treatment programs are available to help.

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Resources

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“Alcohol Use Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 July 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243

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