The Concept of “Holding One’s Liquor” Likely a Fallacy
For decades, the phrase “hold one’s liquor” has been commonplace, a concept that people may have varying degrees of an ability to “control” how much alcohol affects them. Some people believe that people who drink often, who are used to drinking large quantities of alcohol, can control how much that alcohol impairs them.
However, research suggests the conflation of regular heavy drinking with alcohol having less of an effect on the drinker is false.
Alcohol Tolerance and “Holding One’s Liquor”
When one drinks heavily and often, their body forms a “tolerance” of alcohol, meaning they will need to drink more and more alcohol for it to have the same desired mind-altering effects on them. This tolerance of alcohol has been conflated with one being able to “hold their liquor” and not have alcohol affect them.
Science does not back up this viewpoint. True, people who drink often may feel they need to drink more to experience the relaxing, depressant, or social loosening aspect of alcohol. But alcohol still dulls their reaction time, cognitive function, and judgment, even if they’re unaware alcohol is having this effect on them.
Researchers at the University of Chicago sought to understand the differences in how different types of drinkers respond to increasing levels of alcohol content in their bodies. According to them, the findings were quite nuanced.
While heavy drinkers can tolerate certain amounts of alcohol better than light or moderate drinkers, they cannot tolerate high amounts of alcohol better than light or moderate drinkers. “There’s a lot of thinking that when experienced drinkers consume alcohol, they are tolerant to its impairing effects,” said senior study author Andrea King, a behavioral neuroscience professor. “We supported that a bit, but with a lot of nuances. 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.” How the researchers arrived at this finding is insightful.
How the Research Played Out
For the study, the researchers worked with three different groups of adults, all in their 20s. One group was composed of light drinkers. Another group was composed of social drinkers who drank excessively several times per month. The third group met the criteria for alcohol addiction, as they drank to excess at least one out of every three days in the typical month.
Participants in each group were given one drink and then were asked to perform tasks that required fine motor skills, thinking, and a rapid reaction time. The participants were frequently given additional drinks and were administered breathalyzer tests every 30 minutes for three hours.
By the time the participants reached four to five drinks, all were found to have reached the “standard intoxicating dose,” meaning all participants had a blood alcohol content of 0.08% to 0.09%. At this point, participants in the heavy drinking/alcohol addiction group showed slightly less impairment in fine motor and thinking tasks than the light drinkers and the social drinkers.
However, when the participants who met the criteria for alcohol addiction reached seven to eight drinks, which is closer to their usual drinking habit (and with breathalyzers at 0.13% BAC), they showed more than double the amount of mental and motor impairment than they had at the standard intoxicating dose of four to five drinks and 0.08% to 0.09% blood alcohol content. Even three hours later, this group still did not return to their baseline performance.
“I was surprised at how much impairment that group had to that larger dose because while it’s 50% more than the first dose, we’re seeing more than double the impairment...”
The findings are more than a little alarming. “I was surprised at how much impairment that group had to that larger dose because while it’s 50% more than the first dose, we’re seeing more than double the impairment,” King said. Despite the findings, the participants who frequently drank to excess, some of whom met the criteria for addiction, said they felt that the alcohol was not impairing them, even as the light drinkers admitted that they felt impaired after a few drinks.
What the Findings Mean
While the research seems to show that at normal levels of intoxication of 0.08% BAC (about five drinks for a man and about four drinks for a woman), people who drink too much and too often do seem to perform better at fine motor tasks, thinking, and responding quickly than people who do not drink often and who drink in moderation when they do partake.
However, when people who often consume a lot of alcohol drink as much alcohol as they usually consume, i.e., 7–8 drinks, or an equivalent amount of alcohol for their BAC to reach 0.13%, that slight level of higher performance is removed considerably, and such individuals begin to perform at about 50% of what they were able to do at 0.08% BAC.
In conclusion, people who misuse alcohol may have some slight edge in their ability to operate normally when they are right at the limit of intoxication (0.08% BAC). But as soon as such individuals drink as much as they are accustomed to, they experience a marked drop in their reaction time, cognitive function, judgment abilities, and fine motor skills.
Given that about 140,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year, and about 30% of all traffic-related fatalities are still connected to alcohol intoxication, people who drink excessively should do away with the notion that they can “hold their liquor.” Such individuals should be encouraged to seek treatment at qualified alcohol addiction rehabilitation centers as soon as possible.
Heavy drinking and alcohol addiction do not simply “go away” alone. If you know someone who is drinking too much and who cannot stop, please help them find and enter treatment as soon as possible.
- ACER. “Holding your liquor: Comparison of alcohol-induced psychomotor impairment in drinkers with and without alcohol use disorder.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2023. onlinelibrary.wiley.com
- USNews. “Can Heavy Drinkers Really ‘Hold their Liquor’? Study Shows Maybe Not.” U.S. News, 2023. usnews.com
- NIAAA. “Alcohol’s Effects on Health.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023. niaaa.nih.gov