Myths About Alcohol Tolerance & Heavy Drinking
In June 2023, researchers from the University of Chicago published a paper that examined alcohol’s effects on people who do and do not binge drink. The findings suggest that the more you drink, the more impaired you feel, even if you have a high alcohol tolerance.
When you drink alcohol on a regular basis, you build up a tolerance to it. That means you need increasingly larger or more frequent drinks to feel intoxicated.
Some people believe that heavy drinkers develop such high tolerances that they no longer experience the impairing effects of alcohol, such as trouble focusing and loss of balance.
However, a recent study proved otherwise.
Studying Alcohol’s Effects On People Who Do & Do Not Binge Drink
In June 2023, researchers from the University of Chicago published a paper in the journal Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Part of an ongoing research study called the Chicago Social Drinking Project, the paper examined alcohol’s effects on people who do and do not binge drink.
Binge drinking is a type of alcohol misuse that brings your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent or higher. Most females reach this BAC after having 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours, while most males reach it after having 5 or more drinks in about 2 hours.
For the study, researchers organized 397 participants into three groups based on their drinking behaviors.
The first group consisted of light drinkers. These individuals never binge drink, but they do consume up to six standard drinks per week. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a standard drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol.
The second group included heavy social drinkers. These people consume at least 10 drinks per week and binge drink one to five times per month.
Those Who Show Symptoms Of AUD
The third group consisted of those who binge drink at least one-third of the days in a typical month and who show symptoms of alcohol use disorder (AUD), such as:
- frequently craving alcohol
- feeling unable to stop drinking alcohol despite negative consequences, such as damaged relationships or job loss
- experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea and sweating, when you don’t drink (also called alcohol dependence)
Participants in this third group consumed an average of 38.7 drinks per week.
Testing & Process
During the study, researchers tested all groups twice. One test involved a placebo, while the other involved a flavored drink mix with 190-proof alcohol at 16% volume based on body weight.
This standard intoxicating dose of alcohol is equivalent to four or five drinks (the minimum amount for binge drinking).
Most people with AUD consume more than four or five drinks at a time. Thus, researchers gave these participants an additional dose that was equivalent to about seven or eight standard drinks.
Also, because females are typically more sensitive to alcohol, they received doses that were 85% of the doses given to males. All participants consumed their drinks over a span of 15 minutes.
Checking Level Of Impairment
Researchers then checked in with the participants at 30, 60, 120, and 180-minute intervals.
At each interval, participants completed a breathalyzer test and two tasks. The first task required them to place metal pegs into 25 slotted holes on a metal board. It allowed researchers to identify alcohol’s effects on each participant’s fine motor skills.
The second task, which tested cognitive skills, required participants to input symbols from a key pair onto a numbered grid. The researchers then scored each participant on the number of correct symbols they could input in 90 seconds.
At the 30- and 180-minute intervals, researchers asked participants to rate their level of impairment from “not at all” to “extremely.”
Initially, the study suggested that heavy drinkers indeed experience less alcohol-induced impairment than light drinkers. Thirty minutes after consuming the standard intoxicating amount of alcohol, all groups scored similarly on the fine motor skills test.
Compared to light drinkers, though, heavy social drinkers and people with AUD scored better on the cognitive test. They also reported no feelings of impairment, unlike the light drinkers.
In addition, it took more time for the light drinkers to return to their baseline performance levels. These results seem to support the idea that people who drink a lot can “hold their liquor” better.
Heavy Drinkers & Alcohol Tolerance
All that being said, most people with AUD drink more than the standard intoxicating dose.
When given their usual dose, which was 50% stronger than the standard dose, people with AUD experienced more than twice the amount of fine motor and cognitive impairment than they did at the standard dose.
However, participants with signs of AUD displayed even higher levels of impairment than the light drinkers who consumed the standard dose.
It also took a significant amount of time (over three hours) for them to return to baseline performance levels. All of these findings suggest that the more you drink, the more impaired you feel, even if you have a high alcohol tolerance.
The study also highlights the fact that while someone with a higher tolerance might not feel intoxicated after a few drinks, their motor skills still suffer.
Feeling mentally sober, the person may get behind the wheel and cause a fatal crash. Indeed, 37 Americans die in drunk-driving crashes each day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol consumption, please reach out to Spring Hill Recovery Center. Nestled in the serene woodlands, our treatment programs offer personalized, evidence-based care for substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — Drunk Driving https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/drunk-driving
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — Drinking Levels Defined https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking