Low Alcohol Tolerance VS. Alcohol Sensitivity: What’s The Difference?

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on September 2, 2022

Low alcohol tolerance and alcohol sensitivity are different conditions, although they may be equated to be the same. While a person with low tolerance may be intoxicated after one drink, a person with alcohol sensitivity may have a physically adverse reaction to alcohol consumption even before they feel the effects of alcohol.

Low Alcohol Tolerance VS. Alcohol Sensitivity: What’s The Difference?

It is a common misnomer to equate alcohol sensitivity to alcohol tolerance.

While alcohol sensitivity is often referred to as ‘intolerance’, a condition in which someone’s body rejects alcohol, sensitivity has very different effects.

Those with alcohol sensitivity can feel immediate adverse effects as a result of the body attempting to process ethanol, which can be for a number of reasons.

Clinical studies show possible genetic ties to alcohol insensitivity, but another major contributing factor is medication.

Different medications can also lower the sensitivity of any given person to alcohol, such as anti-anxiety medications.

Alcohol tolerance on the other hand, refers to the way a person’s body reacts to the same amount of alcohol over time or with continued drinking.

What Is A Low Alcohol Tolerance?

Almost everybody is born with low alcohol tolerance. This is because ethanol is technically a poison, which is why each time the liver sifts through ethanol, some of its cells are destroyed.

People used to consuming large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis will most often develop high alcohol tolerance, with the inverse being true for those who do not drink often.


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Is It Good To Have A Low Alcohol Tolerance?

It is always better to have a low tolerance to alcoholic drinks than it is to have a high alcohol tolerance.

The more heavy drinking you participate in, the higher your chances are to develop alcohol dependence.

And a high tolerance can mean you drink more, particularly to get the same effects of alcohol that you’re used to.

Alcohol dependence can lead to a number of risks and damage, including permanent liver damage, addiction, and possibly fatal health complications.

The Difference Between Alcohol Tolerance And Alcohol Sensitivity

Low alcohol tolerance is likely if a person has never had alcohol or has not had enough to build up a chemical resistance to the presence of alcohol.

Alcohol sensitivity can exist for a number of reasons. Firstly, some people have a genetic or metabolic inability to process alcohol — the reason for this is not precisely documented.

Additionally, medications can cause extreme sensitivity to alcohol’s effects, especially those used to treat anxiety and even attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Some people may also have acute alcohol sensitivity, meaning that they experience painful or extremely unpleasant bodily reactions even after just one drink — sometimes less.

Factors That Influence Alcohol Tolerance Levels

Drinking habits greatly affect the level of tolerance in any given person.

For instance, if you drank five beers — one beer per night, five days per week — you would have a lesser tolerance compared to someone drinking five beers in one night, once per week.

The person with a higher tolerance has had more of a chance to build up a resistance to alcohol since five beers would constitute a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over 0.08%.

Additionally, body weight greatly affects alcohol tolerance, as the heavier you weigh the more time the body has to process the alcohol before it enters the bloodstream.

A person weighing 150 pounds will have a more intoxicating experience from the same amount of alcohol compared to somebody weighing 250 pounds.

The Metabolic Tolerance Process

Gender also plays a role in the metabolic tolerance process.

Men and women process alcohol at different speeds due to an overabundance of the enzyme that deconstructs ethanol in men, and a deficiency of that enzyme in women.

This enzyme is called alcohol dehydrogenase.

Alongside another liver enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase, the two help the liver to filter ethanol out of the ingested beverage before it can enter the bloodstream.

Since men have more of this enzyme, they process alcohol faster, meaning they have a naturally heightened tolerance to alcohol.

Ethnicity Differences

Ethnicity can be a factor in tolerance levels.

According to the Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center (GARD), the inability to process alcohol at the same rate as other ethnicities is most often found in East Asia.

For reasons yet unknown, Asian demographics have a slightly altered DNA sequence which increases sensitivity to alcohol.

Dangers Of Low Alcohol Tolerance In People With Alcohol Use Disorder

For people with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), a low alcohol tolerance can be dangerous, since it leads them to drink more than their body can either process or handle.

This can lead to alcohol toxicity, potential overdose, and an increased chance of permanent liver damage.

Treatment Options For Alcohol Use Disorder

Fortunately, there are a number of treatment programs available to treat alcohol use disorders.

Some of these treatment services and methods include:

  • inpatient and outpatient treatment
  • detox
  • residential treatment
  • supervised drug screenings
  • mental health services
  • therapy and counseling

Find A Drug And Alcohol Rehab Center Near You

If you or a loved one is searching for alcohol addiction treatment, give our helpline a call today to discuss enrollment at a rehab center near you.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on September 2, 2022


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