Alcohol-Induced Blackouts: What really happens when you drink?

By Efosa Airuehia | 917 Comments | Drugs and Alcohol,

Alcohol-Induced Blackouts: What really happens when you drink?

Samantha was stunned when she was told she had an alcohol-induced blackout. She had never experienced this before. It shocked her that she had no recollection of events leading to her current situation.

She was lying on a hospital bed. Feeling very bruised and exhausted, talking was a chore. Her left leg, broken in two places, was in a cast. She felt something strange on her face. She tried to touch it but could not move her left hand. It was also in a cast!

Samantha was puzzled as to how she ended up this way. As hard as she tried, however, she could not recall. The last thing she remembered was texting her friends to let them know she had gotten to the bar.

Many people can enjoy alcohol in moderation. On the other hand, some struggle to control how much they drink. Alcohol has many effects on the body. One of the conditions that can arise from heavy drinking is alcohol-induced blackouts.

According to the NIAAA, over 25 percent of adults in the U.S. engaged in binge drinking in the past month. Also, over 50 percent of adults have had an alcohol-induced blackout at least once in their lives. Different factors can affect the chances of having a blackout. Examples include your weight, how quickly you drink, the type of alcohol, and your sex.

Let us talk a little bit about this condition.

 

What Are Alcohol-Induced Blackouts?

An alcohol blackout is a period of memory loss while being conscious. It usually occurs when you engage in binge drinking. Even though you do not pass out, you are unable to create long-term memories. Click To Tweet

You are often awake, alert, and able to hold conversations. Within minutes, however, you tend to forget the conversations. You also don’t recall any of the events the next day.

Blacking out is different from passing out. When you are blackout drunk, you are still conscious. Thus, you may be able to walk, talk, and interact with others. You will likely appear intoxicated, though.

For a lot of people, binge-drinking can cause a blackout. Note that merely drinking heavily does not cause blackouts. Instead, this condition occurs when you drink a lot in a short period.

Following excessive amounts of alcohol in a short period, you may lose your train of thought. It also gets harder to understand what people say. Some confusion about recent events is common. Alcohol affects the way you make memories.

People are known to engage in risky sexual behaviors, use drugs, drive vehicles, and get into brawls during alcohol-induced blackouts. This trend can also lead to other dangerous situations and even death!

 

Why Do People Have Alcohol-Induced Blackouts?

Hangovers can occur when you have too much to drink. It is common to experience a hangover without having an alcohol blackout. Drinking slowly over prolonged periods will help you avoid alcohol blackouts. Thus, you will likely remember previous events, even though you may have a headache and feel sore afterward.

The faster you consume alcohol over short periods, the harder it will be to remember prior events. So, why is this the case?

Your brain’s ability to create long-term memories is severely affected by rapid rises in blood alcohol. It is not affected as much by the total blood alcohol content. Hence, binge drinking is more likely to cause alcohol blackouts. On the other hand, slow, heavy drinking is less likely to lead to blackouts. Instead, a hangover is more likely.

The region of the brain critical to forming memories is the hippocampus. This area is found deep within your brain. The hippocampus cannot tolerate high amounts of alcohol for long. As a result, it is unable to create memories when you have a blackout.

Some researchers also show that blackouts occur due to poor brain transfer of information. The rapid rise in blood alcohol levels causes an inability to transfer information from your short-term to your long-term memory.

A few factors can worsen the rapid rise in blood alcohol levels when you binge on alcohol. An example is drinking on an empty stomach. Also, drinking when dehydrated can make your blood alcohol levels rise faster. Substances like benzodiazepines and cannabis make blackouts more likely when you combine them with alcohol.

Research shows that alcohol does not kill brain cells. Instead, it interferes with specific brain regions, causing them to produce steroids. These chemicals are responsible for interrupting your learning process and memory building. Studies show, though, that heavy drinking over a long time causes the brain to shrink.

 

Types of Alcohol-Induced Blackouts

You can experience a range of memory loss symptoms when you binge on alcohol. In some cases, memory loss is minor. For example, not being able to recall details of a conversation. On the other hand, memory loss can be major. An example of this is the loss of large chunks of events during and after bingeing.

There are two types of alcohol blackouts:

1. Fragmentary Blackouts (Partial Blackouts)

During this type of alcohol blackout, there is only a partial blocking of memory. Fragmentary blackouts occur when you binge on alcohol, but the rise in blood alcohol is not too rapid. It is sometimes called a “brownout.”

When you experience this type of blackout, you may think you do not remember the events from the last several hours. Your memory, however, comes back when something or someone reminds you. Researchers believe you are unable to access this memory until a reminder triggers it.

2. En Bloc Blackouts (Complete Blackouts)

In this type of blackout, a complete loss of memory occurs. En Bloc blackouts happen when you drink alcohol too quickly over a short period. For example, consuming multiple shots of alcohol that leads to a rapid rise in your blood alcohol levels. This type of blackout makes you unable to remember anything after a specific period.

The reason for this is because there is a complete block in your brain’s ability to create long-term memories.  Note, though, that your short-term memory continues to function. Thus, though intoxicated, you may continue to talk with friends, dance, order drinks, and even find your way home – if you make it safely!

Note that alcohol blackouts only impairs your ability to form new memories. It does not erase the memories created before you get intoxicated. The amount of memory loss also varies from person to person.

In addition to memory loss, you may also experience other symptoms of intoxication. These include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty standing and walking
  • Impaired judgment
  • Poor attention
  • Impaired vision

 

Why Do Some People Blackout More Than Others?

While some people have alcohol blackouts easily, some do not. Why is this so?

Alcohol consumption has different effects on people. Studies show that some people are more prone to alcohol-induced blackouts. Also, some others are resistant to blacking out. This resistance is despite drinking large amounts of alcohol over short periods.

A study of 100 people with alcohol use disorder revealed interesting results. Out of the 100 participants, 36 had never experienced an alcohol-induced blackout. This report was despite their history of heavy alcohol use.

The long-term effects of blackouts on your brain are unknown. Perhaps, they may increase the chances of you having more memory problems in the future.

People who have experienced a blackout are more likely to have more. Also, according to some researchers, women blackout more easily than men. The belief is that there are differences in the way women’s bodies break down alcohol. This variability may be related to body weight, body fat percentage, hormones, and enzyme levels.

Interestingly, some studies indicate that babies exposed to alcohol during pregnancy have increased chances of experiencing blackouts as adults. Also, you may inherit genes that make it more likely for you to have alcohol-induced blackouts.

 

How To Prevent Alcohol Blackouts

Heavy alcohol consumption has several adverse effects on the body. Alcohol-induced blackouts can be dangerous and even fatal. As such, it is essential to avoid drinking to the point of having a blackout.

Alcohol delays signals in the brain that control the gag reflex. Thus, blacking out can make you throw up while sleeping due to the loss of this reflex. This event can make you choke and suffocate on your vomit while you sleep.

There are different ways you can avoid alcohol-induced blackouts:

  1. Abstaining from alcohol.
  2. Drinking slowly – sipping rather than gulping. Consider having only one drink per hour.
  3. Avoid binge drinking – consuming five or more drinks in about two hours for men, or four or more drinks for women.
  4. Stay hydrated with water. It is a good idea to have a glass of water for every drink you consume.
  5. Eat before drinking. You should also consume more food over time if your drink for long periods.
  6. Avoid mixing drinks with other drinks, medications, or illicit drugs.
  7. Get an accountability partner who stops you from drinking after a certain number of drinks
  8. Use a smartphone app like Sober Grid, Sobriety Counter, I Am Sober, or AlcoDroid Alcohol Tracker.

 

Conclusion

An alcohol blackout is a period of memory loss while being conscious. It usually occurs when you engage in binge drinking. Even though you do not pass out, you are unable to create long-term memories.

Your brain’s ability to create long-term memories is severely affected by rapid rises in blood alcohol. It is not affected as much by the total blood alcohol content. Hence, binge drinking is more likely to cause alcohol blackouts. On the other hand, slow, heavy drinking is less likely to lead to blackouts.

The region of the brain critical to forming memories is the hippocampus. This area is deep within your brain. The hippocampus cannot tolerate high amounts of alcohol for long. As a result, it is unable to create memories when you have a blackout.

There are two types of alcohol blackouts. Fragmentary blackouts cause a partial blocking of memory. En Bloc blackouts, on the other hand, lead to a complete loss of memory.

Alcohol consumption has different effects on people. Studies show that some people are prone to alcohol-induced blackouts. On the contrary, some others are resistant to blacking out.

According to some researchers, women blackout more easily than men. The belief is that there are differences in the way women’s bodies break down alcohol. This variability may be related to body weight, body fat percentage, hormones, and enzyme levels.

There are different ways you can avoid alcohol-induced blackouts. Abstaining from alcohol, drinking slowly, and avoiding bingeing are obvious examples. It is also advisable to stay hydrated, eat before drinking, and avoid mixing alcohol with medications like benzodiazepines. Getting an accountability partner and utilizing smartphone apps are also helpful.

 

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The entire content of AddictionBlueprint, including content on drugs and alcohol, medications, therapies, facilities, spotlights, recommendations, and other features is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This does not constitute a physician-patient relationship. Please seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers regarding your addiction, mental and medical issues.

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