Heavy Drinkers May Not Be Able To Hold Their Booze As Well As They Think

By Britni de la Cretaz 04/24/17

A long-term study tested heavy drinkers to determine if they actually built tolerance to alcohol over time.

Man drinking whisky with ice from a glass against a dark background.

It’s common to hear heavy drinkers say things like, “I hold my liquor well,” or “I can handle my booze.” But is that really true? A new study looks at whether or not long-term heavy drinkers really develop a “tolerance” to alcohol over time the way they think the do.

A new, long-term study in the journal Psychopharmacology found that heavy drinkers may become more adept over time at performing relatively simple tasks while intoxicated, but when it comes to more complex tasks, they’re no better than light drinkers. The study, head authored by Ty Brumback, PhD, used data on participants of the Chicago Social Drinking Project.

Researchers looked at 155 young adults over the course of six years, and classified them as “heavy drinkers” (consuming 10-40 drinks per week for at least two years prior to the study’s beginning) and “light drinkers” (six or fewer drinks per week). The participants were given either alcohol or a placebo drink and then asked to complete two tasks, one simple—comparable to inserting and turning a key in a lock—and one more complex—the equivalent of driving a car while receiving directions to a new place. They were also asked to rate how intoxicated they felt during the course of these tasks.

The results showed that, over the course of six years, the heavy drinkers became more skilled and showed less impairment during the simple task of “unlocking a door,” likely because their brains learn ways to compensate when they’re intoxicated on some tasks over time. This is known as “functional tolerance,” according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

But when it came to the more complex task akin to driving a car, heavy drinkers fared just as poorly as light drinkers. The most damning result, however, is that though heavy drinkers did not perform any better on the complex task than light drinkers, they consistently rated themselves as feeling less intoxicated than the light drinkers.

Brumback explains that heavy drinkers may believe they can tolerate alcohol better because they have more practice doing it. But this misconception can have dire consequences, and lead them to take risks and make bad decisions (like getting behind the wheel of a car, for example). This false belief can put them, and other people, in danger.

"The take-home message here is that tolerance to alcohol is not equal across all tasks and is not 'protective' against accidents or injuries while intoxicated, because it may in fact lead the heavy drinker to judge that they are not impaired and attempt more difficult tasks,” says Brumback, according to Men’s Fitness. “Making such decisions in the moment is highly risky, because it is based on faulty information."

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.