Heavy and chronic alcohol consumption impacts the physical health and well-being of a loved one. When an individual abuses alcohol, he or she develops a physical tolerance to the substance. By understanding the physiological reaction to the substance and the way a tolerance builds up, you will notice when it is time to encourage a loved one to seek treatment.

What is Alcohol Tolerance?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (1) states the tolerance refers to the time when an individual no longer responds to a substance in the same way. Essentially, the body needs a higher dose of the substance for the same effect.

frustrated young business man working on laptop computer at homeAccording to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2), excessive drinking impacts the brain and body in a negative way. It interrupts the brain’s natural communication system. As a result, a loved one cannot think clearly after drinking alcohol.

Furthermore, it impacts the physical body by weakening the immune system, causing inflammation or increasing blood pressure. When a loved one develops a tolerance to alcohol, he or she will drink heavily and increase the risk of health concerns.

Signs of Physical Tolerance to Alcohol

Binge drinking is always a concern, but it does not always signify a physical tolerance to alcohol. Recognizing the signs of tolerance helps determine the next course of action that is appropriate for the specific situation. Signs of physiological alcohol tolerance include:

  • Drinking alcohol regularly and consistently
  • Gradually increasing the amount of alcohol
  • Not seeming drunk after drinking several drinks
  • Marked differences in the response to the same amount of alcohol over time

Columbia University (3) explains that tolerance is a sign of physical dependence on the substance. Alcohol dependence occurs when a loved one faces physical withdrawal symptoms when he or she attempts to stop using alcohol.

Identifying Dependence and Encouraging Treatment

Handsome young man sitting on stairs.Tolerance is the first step toward physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. Psych Central (4) states that professionals identify alcohol dependence after an individual shows signs of alcohol tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. Other signs of physical dependence include:

  • Spending a large amount of time drinking or recovering from drinking
  • Missing social obligations or activities
  • Making efforts to control or cut back on alcohol without success
  • Spending a large amount of time obtaining alcohol or attempting to obtain alcohol

Physical dependence occurs when a loved one exhibits at least three signs of dependency. Tolerance does not always lead to dependence and addiction, but it is the first sign of a problem. Encourage treatment if you notice that a loved one abuses alcohol regularly and gradually increases the amount of alcohol that he or she drinks in a single day.

Pay particular attention to any withdrawal symptoms that occur. If you notice withdrawal symptoms, then consider a medically supervised treatment program. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are potentially dangerous to physical and mental health. Severe symptoms include hallucinations, severe shaking and even death, so a medically supervised program helps reduce the risk of severe reactions.

Excessive drinking does not always result in tolerance and physical dependence, but it does increase the risk of addiction. Encourage early treatment in a professional program so that a loved one recovers from alcohol and regains his or her health. Tolerance is the first sign of a problem, but early treatment reduces the risk of relapsing.


  1. The Neurology of Drug Addiction, The National Institute on Drug Abuse, January 2007, http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/neurobiology-drug-addiction/section-iii-action-heroin-morphine/6-definition-tolerance
  2. Alcohol’s Effects on the Body, The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body
  3. Alice, Drinking Addiction: Psychological or Physical?, Columbia University, July 13, 2007, http://goaskalice.columbia.edu/drinking-addiction-psychological-or-physical
  4. Psych Central Staff, Symptoms of Alcoholism, Psych Central, January 30, 2013, http://psychcentral.com/lib/symptoms-of-alcoholism/000266