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How Does Tolerance Lead to Addiction?


A tolerance is built when using a substance regularly. A tolerance turns into addiction when the brain chemistry changes the way stimuli are registered.

What is Tolerance?

The first step in better understanding the difference between tolerance and addiction, and how tolerance is a step in the growing addiction, is to understand what each term means. Tolerance is closely linked with dependence, and dependence is closely linked with addiction. Someone who develops an addiction will undoubtedly experience all three at some point in that cycle. 

Tolerance occurs when a person has a diminished response to alcohol or drugs as a result of repeated use. Its mere presence means more of a substance is needed to achieve the desired results. When someone abuses drugs or alcohol over a long period, eventually their body and brain will become used to the effects. This requires that they either take more of the drug or take it more often, to feel the same effects that they are used to. 

This step up in usage can have negative consequences itself, like a greater potential for overdose. According to the NIH: “A variety of factors can impact a person’s drug tolerance. People with certain liver or kidney disorders, the organs that break down or metabolize drugs, may require Trusted Source.”

Understanding Substance Dependence

The next step in an addiction, following building a tolerance, is eventually becoming dependent on the substance. Drug dependence is commonly referred to as the person not being able to function effectively on a daily basis, without taking the substance. Depending on the type and severity of the substance abuse, dependence can be physical or psychological, and it can have serious effects on the individual’s life in general.

Dependence is crucial for developing an addiction, and in many cases, the dependence is what causes the individual to begin the chronic behavioral changes that are often seen in those with substance use disorder. The dependence and the intense desire to avoid the onset of potential withdrawal symptoms are what plant the seed for the ongoing, compulsive, drug-seeking, and addictive behavior that is often displayed by those struggling with drug or alcohol use disorders

One of the most common examples of dependence is the compulsion of a cigarette smoker to smoke constantly. Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances commonly available. It is well-known for causing a powerful physical and psychological addiction over long periods of use. 

When a smoker decides to quit and stops smoking suddenly, they experience a physical withdrawal and detox stage just like anyone else recovering from an addiction. Some of the symptoms seen in cases like these are tremors, physical cravings for nicotine, and increased tiredness or fatigue. 

The Difference Between Tolerance and Dependence 

The biggest difference between tolerance and dependence lies in what they are, at their core. Tolerance is the term for the body getting used to drug or alcohol use, and their effects requiring a larger dose or more frequent dosing to feel the same effects. 

One of the biggest causes of developing a tolerance is that someone abuses a substance or alcohol for a long period. This happens because the body begins to metabolize the substance faster, and so it creates a lesser effect on the body of the individual. The total number of drug-specific cell receptor sites that the drug links to the brain will be reduced and so greater dosages of the substance will be needed.

Is Dependence the Same as Addiction?

Dependence and addiction are not the same things, but they do go hand in hand. Dependence is what often leads to a continual, compulsive long-term use of a substance, and the behaviors that result are often what define drug addiction. The desire to avoid the withdrawal symptoms that will eventually result from non-use will continue to forge reinforcement in the reward and pleasure centers of the brain, which causes the cycle to continue. 

Addiction is defined by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) as a chronic disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, and continued use despite harmful consequences. It can result in long-lasting changes in the brain. It’s more complicated than other diseases, as it’s considered both a complex brain disorder and a mental illness.

How Does Tolerance Lead to Addiction?

Developing a tolerance to addictive behavior, like heavy drinking or using highly addictive drugs, is one of the biggest risk factors and environmental factors for long-term use that leads to addiction. The tolerance creates one of the initial drivers for increased usage and more frequent consumption. This also creates a more powerful dependence that has more severe consequences for detox and withdrawals.

Tolerance Can Contribute to Addiction

Tolerance causes the user to use more and to use more often. This leads to more intense dependence and a further reduction in the individual’s ability to control their substance use. This inability to control usage is one of the defining characteristics of addiction since it is based largely on behaviors and behavior traits.

Some of the most common signs that someone is living with some degree of addiction include:

  • Developing a tolerance of any strength
  • Feeling disconnected from many daily activities
  • The desire, but not the ability, to stop using drugs or alcohol
  • Difficulties managing daily activities
  • Using drugs or drinking alcohol while driving, working, or in other situations of high potential risk
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when usage is stopped

What to Do if You Develop a Tolerance

One of the first things you should do if you have developed a tolerance to drugs or alcohol is to get professional help. By working with a local addiction professional, the person struggling with addiction or dependence can begin to create a treatment program tailored specifically to their needs. 

Reach out today to speak with experienced healthcare professionals in a confidential environment about developing a treatment plan that works for you. You can experience recovery in one of the most luxurious centers around. 

Call the Agape Treatment Center admissions team at 888-614-0077 to learn more about what our addiction and mental health facilities can do for you or your loved one.

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