Alcohol Tolerance vs. Alcohol Dependence: Understanding the Difference

alcohol tolerance or alcohol dependence

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are prevalent issues in America. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, “25.8% of people aged 18 years and older report binge drinking in the past 30 days.”[1] Additionally, they found that 95,000 American adults die from alcohol use every year. 

Alcohol abuse is a major problem in our society. When speaking about alcoholism, you have probably heard of the terms “tolerance” and “dependence.” While these terms are often used in conjunction with one another, they mean very different things. 

If you struggle with alcohol abuse, knowing the difference between alcohol tolerance and alcohol dependence will help you receive proper treatment and support.

What is Alcohol Tolerance?

To understand tolerance you must first understand blood alcohol content levels. Blood alcohol content (BAC) levels refer to how much alcohol a person has in their blood. This can point to how much alcohol an individual has consumed and even how quickly they drank it. 

If you build a tolerance to alcohol, that means that you require a higher BAC than typical people to experience alcohol intoxication. According to the University of Toledo, important aspects of understanding alcohol tolerance include:[2]

  • The ability to stand, walk, speak without slurring, etc may change with tolerance
  • Reaction time and peripheral vision do not improve with tolerance
  • Blood alcohol content and the rate at which you metabolize alcohol do not change with tolerance

While you may have heard someone bragging about their high tolerance of alcohol, it is not actually a good thing. Drinking large amounts of alcohol at one time can lead to an array of issues. 

Some of the risks of developing a tolerance include:

  • Developing a dependency on alcohol
  • Becoming addicted to alcohol 
  • Leading to the damage to organs 
  • Affect your ability to perform daily tasks
  • Contribute to the ineffectiveness of medication
  • Increase the toxicity of other substances 

What is Alcohol Dependence?

Individuals who are dependent on alcohol feel as if they cannot live without it. There are two different types of alcohol dependency; physical and psychological. 

Physical dependence on alcohol means that your body cannot function without the presence of alcohol. This means that withdrawal symptoms will occur if you attempt to cut back on or quit alcohol altogether. There are an array of other risks associated with physical dependence, including significant damage to the organs like the liver or kidneys. 

Psychological dependence is characterized by you relying on alcohol to numb painful emotions or deal with your problems. If you suffer from both forms of dependency and tolerance, you are probably dealing with an alcohol use disorder. 

The risks of developing a dependency on alcohol include:[3,4,5]

  • Increased risk of cancers 
  • Increased risk of pancreatitis, high blood pressure, and stroke 
  • The risk of developing coronary alcohol-related heart disease 
  • Developing liver disease 
  • Becoming addicted to alcohol
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms of alcohol 
  • Increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation
  • The lessened ability of your brain to release feel-good chemicals 

Understanding Alcohol Withdrawal 

If you are suffering from a dependency on alcohol, it is important to understand what alcohol withdrawal is. 

When you drink alcohol routinely, your central nervous system begins to adjust to the presence of the substance. Because alcohol is a depressant, your brain has to work in overdrive to keep your body awake. When the level of alcohol in your body drops, the brain is still over-working, causing withdrawal symptoms to occur. 

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety 
  • Shaking of the hands 
  • Headaches 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Insomnia 
  • Excessive sweating 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Delusions
  • Seizures 
  • Confusion
  • Racing heart
  • High blood pressure 
  • Fever 

Your symptoms will differ in severity depending on how progressed your alcohol dependency is. If you suffer from a mild dependency, you will not experience severe symptoms. However, severe dependency can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and grand mal seizures.

When is an Individual Considered an Alcoholic?

Alcoholism is defined as, “a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”[6]

In other words, alcoholism is a serious condition that causes you to be unable to control your alcohol consumption even if you are experiencing the adverse effects of drinking. If you suffer from alcohol use disorder, you would have a tolerance, physical dependency, and psychological dependence on alcohol. One of the biggest red flags for this condition is the presence of withdrawal symptoms when you cut back on or stop drinking. 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the signs of alcohol use disorder include:[6]

  • Drinking more, or longer, than you intended
  • Wanting to cut down or stop drinking but being unable to
  • Spending a lot of time drinking and recovering from the effects 
  • Wanted a drink so badly you can’t think of anything else (cravings)
  • Drinking interferes with taking care of your home or family, causes job troubles, or causes problems in school 
  • Continuing to drink even though it causes trouble with your family or friends
  • Giving or cutting back on activities that were important or interesting to you to drink instead
  • Getting into situations while or after drinking that increases your chances of getting hurt
  • Continuing to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem
  • Having a tolerance for alcohol
  • Having withdrawal symptoms when you stop or cut back on drinking

Finding Help for Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Suffering from both alcohol tolerance and alcohol dependence often signifies that you have an alcohol use disorder. If you or a loved one suffer from alcoholism, attending professional treatment is of the utmost importance. Thankfully, Moving Mountains Recovery Center is here to help. 

With our highly individualized continuum of care, we can provide you with all of the tools you need to gain and maintain long-term sobriety. Contact us today for more information on our alcohol addiction treatment programs.

References:

  1. https://drugabusestatistics.org/alcohol-abuse-statistics/
  2. https://www.utoledo.edu/studentaffairs/counseling/selfhelp/substanceuse/tolerance.html
  3. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/
  4. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-related-liver-disease-arld/
  5. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)00122-1/fulltext
  6. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder
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