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How Your Body Becomes Tolerant to Drugs or Alcohol

The words “tolerance,” “dependence,” and “addiction” are often erroneously used when describing one’s proclivity for using drugs or alcohol. But the truth is these terms are different from each other when looking at how substances affect the brain.

Defining Tolerance, Dependence, and Addiction 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse best explains how each term differs from the other:

  • Tolerance – When you’re no longer easily affected by a substance the same way as when you first tried it, it’s a clear indication that your body has fully adapted to it and has developed a tolerance. Typically, many people develop drug or alcohol tolerance as they consume higher doses of substances to get the pleasurable effect or the “high” they’re looking for.
  • Dependence – A person is considered dependent on specific substances if they experience withdrawal symptoms the minute they stop using. These symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening in nature and can affect you physically or mentally. Those with drug or alcohol dependence usually suffer from anxiety, irritability, nausea, vomiting, shaking, and excessive sweating in the first hours of medical detox. However, people who are substance dependent are not necessarily addicted.
  • Addiction – The NIDA emphasizes that addiction is a chronic brain disease. Unlike drug tolerance or dependence, someone struggling with a substance use disorder cannot stop using drugs or alcohol independently despite being fully aware of its negative effect on them or the people around them without going through proper treatment.

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Understanding Drug Tolerance 

Drug tolerance can happen both with illicit drugs like cocaine, marijuana, as well as opioids and prescription medications.

Most people develop prescription drug tolerance when undergoing long-term treatment to manage chronic pain, immune-related conditions, seizures, and mental illnesses. Some of the most common medications notorious for drug tolerance are antidepressants, cancer drugs, anxiolytics, and antibiotics.

There are many risks associated with increased drug tolerance, including:

  • Flare-up or relapse – Medical conditions can get worse because they have become resistant to the drug.
  • Higher dose – There’s a need to increase the dosage for the treatment to work, which, unfortunately, also heightens the possibility of side effects and further intensifies a person’s drug tolerance.
  • Cross-drug tolerance – This refers to tolerance to other drugs in the same class. For example, alcohol tolerance can cause cross-drug tolerance to diazepam or valium.
  • Drug addiction – Certain types of drug tolerance can pave the way for developing drug dependence, addiction, and overdose. Studies reveal that opioid addiction, which is initially prescribed for pain management, is an excellent example of this.

How Do You Develop Functional Alcohol Tolerance? 

Do you know someone who can hold their liquor well? They don’t show any sign of intoxication even after downing several shots of alcohol because they have developed functional alcohol tolerance. Their brain has adapted to large amounts of alcohol and has been trained to work properly without disruptions.

Based on Alcohol Alert, there are different types of functional alcohol tolerance, including: 

  • Acute Tolerance – This is when someone develops alcohol tolerance during a single drinking session instead of several. The person immediately feels intoxicated, without feeling the other effects of the substance, in the initial stages of alcohol consumption rather than towards the end.
  • Environment-Dependent Tolerance – There’s research suggesting that a person can also build alcohol tolerance quickly when several drinking sessions happen in the same place, with the same company, or similar cues. Social drinkers were found to have better hand-eye coordination after drinking in a bar-like environment than in an office.
  • Learned Tolerance – Otherwise known as behaviourally augmented tolerance, learned alcohol tolerance happens when you’re practicing or performing a task under the influence of alcohol. For example, when playing beer pong.
  • Environment-Independent Tolerance – This type of functional tolerance involves exposure to significantly large amounts of alcohol.
  • Metabolic Tolerance – This kind of tolerance happens when the body processes alcohol rapidly by activating a specific group of liver enzymes after some time of chronic drinking. The body metabolizes the alcohol swiftly, cutting down the time it’s active in the system and the length of intoxication as a result. Developing metabolic tolerance to alcohol raises your risk of having potentially harmful health issues, such as severe liver damage.

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Alcohol or Drug Tolerance Is a Gateway to Addiction 

According to George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that individuals with low sensitivity or, what he calls, inherent alcohol tolerance, more often than not come from a family with a history of alcoholism. However, Koob also adds that ironically, the same people with low sensitivity to alcohol are also more likely to become alcoholics

Oftentimes, people aware of their drug or alcohol tolerance become overconfident and consume substances continuously in higher doses and frequency. The use and misuse of substances become exponentially more problematic when they’re doing it as a coping mechanism against stress triggers or an undiagnosed mental health condition like depression or anxiety.

Addiction Treatment Services

No matter where you are in your personal healing journey, Freedom From Addiction can help you. We have a wide range of residential or outpatient treatment programs that we can customize according to your specific needs. Aside from our individualized drug rehab and alcohol recovery program, we offer: 

If you feel that you or a loved one has developed an unhealthy relationship with substances that have gone beyond drug or alcohol tolerance, don’t hesitate to talk to a health professional about it. The sooner you can get help, the less likely you’ll have to deal with addiction. 

For more information about our alcohol rehab or drug addiction treatments, please do not hesitate to reach out to us. A member of our team will get back to you shortly.


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