Heavy Drinkers Have Greater Tolerance, Right? Not So Much

Study suggests it's largely a myth
By Steve Huff,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 25, 2023 5:25 PM CDT
Heavy Drinkers Have Greater Tolerance, Right? Not So Much
   (Getty Images / Katarzyna Bialasiewicz)

It's a common dramatic trope: Steely-eyed people squaring off in a boozy drinking duel, usually ending with someone passing out on the floor while their opponent seems relatively clear-eyed in victory. Research done by the University of Chicago found that the heavy drinker with high tolerance, however, is mostly a myth suited for the movies. The research "supported that a bit, but with a lot of nuances," says study author Andrea King in a news release. "When they drank alcohol in our study at a dose similar to their usual drinking pattern, we saw significant impairments on both the fine motor and cognitive tests that was even more impairment than a light drinker gets at the intoxicating dose."

The study, published in Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research, also reinforced previous findings by the same group that the social element of drinking creates a "double-edged sword" effect, in King's words, where socializing between light and heavy drinkers can increase cravings for the latter group, causing them to drink even more, despite the consumption causing increased impairment. Researchers looked at three groups of twenty-somethings broken down by how much they drink: light (up to six drinks a week, with no binging), heavy social drinkers (10 drinks a week with occasional binging), and those with alcohol use disorder (28 or more drinks a week, with frequent binging).

While those in the latter AUD group were less impaired than the others after imbibing four to five drinks—roughly enough to hit the red line of the drunk-driving threshold—just a few more drinks found them seriously impaired as well. "In fact, this impairment was 'more than double' what they experienced after consuming the smaller intoxicating amount of alcohol," per Healthline. And three hours later, they remained impaired. "In addition, people with AUD had greater impairment after consuming the larger amount of alcohol than what light drinkers experienced after drinking the lesser amount." (More scientific study stories.)

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