How are average-sized and above-average-sized people sometimes able to develop huge tolerances to alcohol and not immediately die?


I’m sure we’ve all heard and read endless anecdotes about the guy who got pulled over and blew a .46, or someone that can drink entire bottle of vodka. Or Ric Flair, for example, who told a story in a documentary about a time when he drank a six-pack of beer before arriving at an airport, drank 10 double tequila, cranberry and sodas before the flight at the airport bar, had eight bloody Mary’s on the flight, and drank another six-pack of beer upon landing. Like, how does that not kill someone?

In: 876

Alcohol resistance has 3 main factors:

1) body mass: the heavier you are, the more alcohol distributes

2) genetics: some nations, that have used alcohol for really long time as part of their culture have higher resistance to it, because the body can deal with alcohol easily

3) training: similar as genetics… Your body gets used to higher doses and learns how to deal with them

There are basically two mechanisms of alcohol tolerance. The first is that your body (specifically your liver) gets better at clearing alcohol from the bloodstream. This means that if you drink the same amount, it doesn’t raise your blood alcohol content (BAC) as much. The second mechanism is that the places where alcohol has an effect in the body become less sensitive to it. Your body “recalibrates”, as it were, to the presence of alcohol. This means that, even if you have the same BAC as someone else, you won’t feel the effects as much. The flipside of this is that you won’t feel good if you have a BAC of 0. Because your body (and esp. your brain) has recalibrated to having alcohol around all the time, having no alcohol means you don’t function well.

People who drink a lot of alcohol will “train” both of these mechanisms. So an alcoholic who chugs a fifth of scotch will (A) not raise their BAC as much as a healthy person and (B) not feel the effects of the BAC they run up as much as a healthy person would.

The “breakdown tolerance” mechanism can eventually fail as people rack up so much liver damage that their liver just gives out.

The “systemic tolerance” (I’m making these terms up btw) mechanism is very important to be aware of when trying to get rid of alcohol addiction, because it get can to the point where an alcoholic **needs** to consume some amount of alcohol, or they might actually develop seizures and even die. Their brain chemistry is so adapted to constantly having alcohol, that without it the chemical balance gets totally screwed up. People with severe alcohol addiction therefore need to be weaned off alcohol gradually, and not quit drinking all at once. This is best done under expert medical supervision, of course.

Your body likes to work at max efficiency. It’s not going to waste time, energy, and space on something it doesn’t need. When you first start drinking, you don’t have any, or very few, proteins in your liver cells that are required to break down alcohol. It has never needed these proteins before and why would it create them if it doesn’t need them? This is why you can get drunk with only a few drinks when you’re new to drinking. As you continue to drink, more liver cells produce and keep these proteins. This is how a tolerance starts. Your body can break down alcohol much faster than it used to because it has a built up supply of liver cells that are capable of breaking it down.

I started drinking when I was ~19, and I hit the ground running. I was drinking like 5-6 night a week with my friends. The first time I drank, I had 3 Bud Lights and was significantly buzzed, but by the time I was like 22, my friends and I could easily take 15+ shots and not blackout. People like Ric Flair probably have some genetic help, but its mostly just commitment to drinking. If you drink excessively, every night, your body gets used to alcohol and breaking it down. (It also becomes dependent on alcohol, but that’s a different story).

Former horrible horrible alcoholic here.

The short answer is that alcohol has been around for almost as long as the human race has. There are beer recipes that are around 4000 years old! Our bodies have had a ton of time to adapt to dealing with the chemicals in it.

Our bodies do everything they can not to waste energy and are very effective at adapting to change. The more you drink the better you get at dealing with the side effects.

I was a hard core drunk for 10 years. At the end of it I was averaging about a 15-25 drinks of whiskey a day just to keep functioning. Without a couple of drinks in the morning I wouldn’t be able to read because my eyes lost focus. I would shake terribly, couldn’t think etc…

Think of it like working out, the more you do push ups, the more push ups you can do. It’s like training for a sport (beerfest anyone!?) All of the “muscles” that get the work out get more efficient at performing at that specific task over time.

Humans are overall pretty weak, but adaptation is our greatest strength and why we’ve made it this far.

Drinking like that has some terrible side effects though, and while it’s fun to watch your bartender call the manager over to check on you because he’s worried that you’ve downed 6 double scotches in an hour and are fine (happened to me, Manager said I was fine and poured me another), your liver and heart and blood pressure are definitively not fine.

TLDR; body gets better at doing whatever you keep doing to it until it can’t. Don’t become an alcoholic. Get help.

EDIT: Forgot to mention, while I was drinking I was 5”8 and 135lbs. Not very big. Smaller than average if anything.

There’s a vein that sends blood from the stomach to the liver. So high tolerance people who’ve drank for a long, long time have livers that are very good at processing alcohol and most of the alcohol they drink never reaches their blood stream (their liver processes it first).