Alcohol tolerance: A double-edged sword

Alcohol tolerance may seem desirable, but it has consistently been shown to lead to alcoholism.

by Maureen Landsverk

Before Barack Obama began his kick for healthcare reform, the most heated debates on campus were commonly centered on one subject: alcohol. Where to get it, what to buy to maximize and quicken intoxication, how to drink itâÄîthe list is endless. An argument that often ends unresolved is one that concerns everyone, from the Smirnoff connoisseur to the Heineken guzzler. Alcohol tolerance has long been disputedâÄîif not from the dawn of time, from the first draft of beer. Young and old alike revel in the ambiguous calculation of individual tolerance; the challenge of one-upping fellow drinkers met with the uncertainty of limitations. What most of us donâÄôt realize, however, is that the term âÄútoleranceâÄù encompasses a wide variety of meanings, from physical coordination to the chemical aspects of ethanol metabolism. With these different types of tolerance come different rates of progression: you may be able to tie your shoes faster after a few beers, but your friend might be better at solving for the hydrostatic pressure on a submerged object. The variable definition of the word that determines our alcohol intake raises the age-old question: is alcohol tolerance genetically predetermined, or a condition we can controlâÄîat least to some extent? The answer, of course, is a combination of both. A greater tolerance to alcohol may serve to allow coherency at higher BAC (blood alcohol content) levels, but it also encourages binge-drinking, which can lead to alcoholism. In a study involving the sons of alcoholic fathers versus those of nonalcoholic fathers, those who had the alcoholism gene exhibited higher levels of tolerance than those who didnâÄôtâÄîa short-term advantage that can eventually lead to increased alcohol consumption in the long-run. Those with the flip-sided curse of predisposed tolerance to alcohol produce a higher volume of alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme that breaks down ethanol in the liver, so that alcoholâÄôs effects are processed, accelerated and finished faster. For those of you who arenâÄôt blessed with the gene, donâÄôt worryâÄîyou can still develop tolerance, dependence, and possibly even alcoholism before you graduate! These non-genetic tolerances are behaviorally augmented, and are instigated by repetitive alcohol consumptionâÄîassumedly not a difficult task for many. Environment-dependent tolerance is prone to develop in social drinkers who tend to frequently consume alcohol in the same place, or places with similar atmospheres. For instance, your tolerance at a bar you visit regularly will be higher than your tolerance, say, on the tranquil streets of Minneapolis during Spring Jam. âÄúI feel like IâÄôm much more mentally there at the Library bar than wandering the streets,âÄù says Pat Swanson, regular bar customer. âÄúI can function pretty well at my apartment after a dozen beers, but when I head over to the shout house to drink the same amount IâÄôm usually kicked out within an hour and a half. You can draw your own conclusions.âÄù Excessive quantities of alcohol have been proven to create functional tolerance independent of environmental effects; this refers to hand-eye coordination and dexterity rather than clear mental processes, which are more relatable to individualsâÄô volume of dehydrogenase. Liver enzyme production is initially genetically predisposed, but can be increased over time with regular alcohol consumption. Learned tolerance, as environment-dependent tolerance is also referred to, can be helpful in familiar environments, though extremely dangerous if the drinker attempts to transfer their developed tolerance to a dissimilar situation; to perform the same task in a different environment. For instance, tolerance developed while driving after minimal alcohol consumption in your neighborhood can disappear completely if you try to navigate a foreign route. A phenomenon most are unfamiliar with is the effect of alcohol content in a drink. Contrary to popular belief, a greater alcohol percentage is actually not equivocal to a drunker state. Drinks that contain 10 to 30 percent alcohol have the highest absorption rate, compared to those above or below the range. Alcoholic drinks over 30 percent content irritate the gastrointestinal tract, stimulating glands that produce substances that slow alcohol absorption, while smaller percentages just donâÄôt register. In other words, your body will begin to process liquor faster and its effects will become apparentâÄîboth to you and those around youâÄîat a faster rate with a drink of a more moderate alcohol percentage. It might seem backwards, but drinking a few glasses of White Zinfandel will probably impair that pesky judgment we all try so desperately to cast aside faster than straight shots of tequila or shot-gunning a few beers. While the Univeresity of Minnesota may have not been ranked in Princeton ReviewâÄôs top party schools, we held our own during the infamous Spring Jam weekend. WCCO quoted students comparing Dinkytown to Baghdad last year; obviously an overstatement, though much improved upon this year. All the same, the five arrests made last year at the riots of Spring Jam 2009 canâÄôt hold a candle to the 214 arrests made at Mifflin Street Block Party in Madison, up from 164 in 2009. At least we have that. Maureen Landsverk welcomes comments at [email protected]