Updated on February 6, 2024
6 min read

What Does It Mean to Have a High Tolerance to Drugs or Alcohol?

What Does High Tolerance Mean?

High tolerance refers to how much drugs or alcohol you can consume before it affects your functionality. Regularly doing drugs or drinking excessively may cause you to develop a high tolerance over time.

This means that drugs or alcohol may take longer to cause impairment. However, just because you develop a high tolerance doesn't mean these substances won't affect you.

There are still side effects that can harm your mental and physical health. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol or substance use, seek professional help. 

Is Having a High Tolerance to Drugs or Alcohol Bad?

Having a high tolerance to drugs or 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.

However, having a high tolerance can be dangerous. A high tolerance to alcohol, for example, may cause you to drink more than you intended. This can lead to alcohol misuse and even alcohol addiction.

Dangers of Having a High Alcohol Tolerance 

If you have a high tolerance to alcohol, to achieve the same drunk effect, you will need to drink more. This can lead to 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 they’d engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month. And about 14.1 million adults in the U.S. have AUD.

Dangers of Having a High Drug Tolerance

Having a high drug tolerance also means you’ll need to consume more to achieve the same high effect. This can lead to a drug overdose, which can significantly harm your health. It can also claim your life.

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What Causes High Drug or Alcohol Tolerance? 

High drug or alcohol tolerance increases over time due to regular drug and alcohol consumption. However, studies find that your external environment may also affect your tolerance.

For example, if you continue to drink in familiar environments, your central nervous system (CNS) 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 can also affect your tolerance, including:

  • Weight
  • Height
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Food intake

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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. About 9 percent of full-time college students (ages 18 to 22) have alcohol use disorder (AUD).

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 or alcohol has an addiction. And not everyone with an addiction necessarily has a high tolerance.

Symptoms of Drug Addiction

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

  • 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 by the wayside because of the drug
  • Stopping 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 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:

  • Being unable to cut back on the amount of alcohol you consume
  • Being unable to quit drinking
  • Spending the bulk of your time drinking
  • Craving alcohol
  • Letting work and family obligations fall by the wayside
  • Continuing to drink, despite the physical, mental, social, and interpersonal problems it 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

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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 drug dose that causes a lower brain concentration in high-tolerance people than 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 continuously or repeatedly being exposed to a drug to which you develop a weakened pharmacological response.

Types of Alcohol Tolerances

There are also different types of alcohol tolerances. Here are six:

Functional Tolerance

Functional tolerance refers to one’s decreased responsiveness to alcohol, regardless of the 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 ethanol 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 affect your tolerance. 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 quickly clear it from your system.

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.

Cutting it out completely will also do the same. If you develop withdrawal symptoms, seek professional treatment. It’s unsafe to cut out drugs and alcohol cold turkey. A professional can help you safely navigate the road to recovery.

Treatment Options for Drug & Alcohol Addiction

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug or alcohol use, contact your healthcare provider for medical advice.

Treatment options that may help include:

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Updated on February 6, 2024
17 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
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