What Exactly Are Alcohol Blackouts?
Consuming alcoholic beverages often make you feel spontaneous, excited, and euphoric. However, as your blood alcohol content (BAC) levels increase, your coordination and ability to make good judgments decreases. Alcohol tends to also affect an individual’s capability to create memories, though this isn’t in the same way that alcohol impacts other cognitive functions.
Have you ever drank alcohol throughout the day or evening? More than likely, you most likely awoke the following day dehydrated with a hangover and a headache. Despite this, with some effort and some small reminders, you probably could recall everything that you did.
If you begin the evening chugging beer, taking shots, or playing alcohol drinking games, the chances of remembering everything the following day drop considerably.
This is due to the brain’s overall ability to make long-term memories is not impacted as much as BAC as it is by a rapid increase in BAC. Binge drinking, which is the consumption of excessive alcohol in a very short period of time, is far more likely to result in alcohol blackouts, memory loss, and amnesia than slow, heavy alcohol consumption, according to various research and studies.
Keep in mind that blacking out isn’t the same thing as passing out. A blackout refers to the inability to create memories, though people can still be fully conscious when they are considered “blackout drunk”. These individuals are still able to talk and walk, though they will likely do so drunkenly.
This happens far more often than you think. Despite advice that is given by beer commercials and experts, the majority of the population fails to drink responsibly. Over 50 percent of adult individuals have blacked out once over the course of their lives. This is not surprising since nearly 25 percent of adults indulge in binge drinking each month.
Impact of Alcohol on One’s Memory
Scientists continuously debate on how the memory is formed, though most tend to concur that memories are formed in three stages. These three stages include:
- Sensory Memory – This includes the information regarding everything that you hear, see, taste, smell, and touch, and it lasts for about one or two seconds.
- Short-Term Memory – This is where sensory information moves to when an individual thinks about it. It can last several minutes, depending on how long an individual focuses on the data.
- Long-Term Memory – This is where information is transferred to after information is rehearsed or given enough attention.
There are several different factors that impact the probability of information being transferred to long-term memory. For years, researches have been familiar with the fact that alcohol disturbs the brain’s ability to move memories from short- to long-term memory, but they weren’t sure how. The common agreement was that brain cells were killed by alcohol, resulting in the loss of memory and various other impairments to cognitive function.
However, a 2011 study showed that brain cells weren’t killed by alcohol. Instead, the study showed that alcohol hindered the brain receptors, which resulted in steroids being produced that interrupted the memory-building and learning process.
Therefore, alcohol may not be hurting the cells in the way that was previously thought, or in any way that can be detected. In fact, the scientists from this study report that they don’t see changes in the communications between the brain cells. They say that information can still be processed because you have not actually passed out and you aren’t anesthetized, though no new memories are being formed.
For that reason, individuals who binge drink are experiencing a range of symptoms related to memory loss. Alcohol can result in a minor loss of memory like not being able to remember certain parts of a conversation, or a major loss of memory like failing to remember several hours of time after consuming shots.
Blackouts are essentially placed into one of two categories, which are as follows:
- Fragmentary Blackouts – This is considered a partial blockage of memory.
- En Bloc Blackouts – This is a complete memory loss while intoxicated.
For the duration of en bloc blackouts, which is what the majority of individuals refer to as blacking out, a person is unable to recall anything after a certain period of time. The brain’s ability of creating long-term memories is blocked completely. However, sensory as well as short-term memories are still functionable. The individual is able to still socialize and drink, dance, order drinks, and more.
During fragmentary blackouts, individual may assume that they are unable to remember what occurred the night before, but it is possible for their memory to come back as soon as a detail of the night before is mentioned to them. Researchers believe that an individual may not be able to gain access to the memory unless it is triggered by a reminder.
How Are Alcohol Blackouts Caused?
For most individuals, blackouts are caused by binge drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Studies appear to agree that excessive drinking—at least alone—won’t result in a blackout. An individual will need to consume a significant amount of alcohol in a very short period of time for a blackout to occur. Therefore, the primary cause for a blackout is a quick increase in blood alcohol content levels, which can be boosted by consuming alcohol on an empty stomach or even while dehydrated.
The 86-Proof Bourbon Experiment
In 1970, there was an experiment conducted where 10 men with an alcohol addiction history were provided between 16 and 18 ounces of 86-proof bourbon over the course of four hours.
After the initial hour, the memories of the individuals were tested by being shown images and asking them to recollect the details of those images later—two minutes, 30 minutes, and then 24 hours later. Most of the participants were able to recall the images two minutes after having been show them, but 50 percent of the men were unable to recall the images 30 minutes or 24 hours later.
The authors of the study concluded that blackouts were a result of an inability to properly transfer data from short- to long-term memory when BAC levels were increasing. Similar studies have generated similar results.
People are affected differently by alcohol. Research has suggested that some individual’s brains are more likely to black out than others. Of course, the opposite is also true: Some individual’s brains may be more defiant when it comes to blacking out.
During one study, there were 100 participants, of which 36 said they had participated in heavy alcohol use though they’ve never had a blackout.
Research has shown that an individual who has had one blackout is far more likely to experience subsequent blackouts later down the line. At this time, the long-term effects of blacking out are unknown, though they could cause the brain to be more vulnerable to future memory loss.
Studies also indicate that prenatal exposure to alcohol increase the risk of future blackouts. In addition, a person is more likely to have blackouts due to certain genes.
Are Women More Likely to Black Out?
There are similar numbers of women and men experiencing blackouts, though it is men that seem to drink more heavily and frequently than women. The reasonable conclusion appears to be that women are at a higher risk of blacking out. Researchers believe this is due to the difference in the makeup of men’s and women’s bodies, particularly the way that they metabolize alcohol, though additional research is required to be sure.
What is known for sure is that women are more apt to experience other alcohol effects like heart damage, liver cirrhosis, nerve damage, and various other diseases that alcohol can cause. Brain damage research is inconclusive at this time.
A pair of studies determined that women and men both experience shrinkage of the brain and issues with memory after consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. The first study determined that women experienced the aforementioned side effects after consuming half as much alcohol as the men.
Individuals who are drunk or have blacked out have an increased likelihood to give illicit drugs a try than they would if they were sober. In a 2004 study, roughly two percent of college students (one in 50) had experienced a blackout after consuming beer only.
Additional studies have shown that taking benzodiazepines like Rohypnol or Valium with alcohol can significantly increase the risk of a blackout. Abusing drugs like these without the consumption of alcohol can result in the loss of memory, but with alcohol, the effects of the drugs are greatly enhanced. Research shows that smoking marijuana while also drinking ups the chances of a blackout as well.
Symptoms of a Blackout
Blacking out is often glamorized by media outlets and celebrities with drug issues. In addition, not remembering what occurred the previous night is often the subject of discussion in a number of stores. However, blackouts are not a laughing matter—neither are extremely bad hangovers or out-of-hand behavior at parties. This stuff is very dangerous.
Individuals who experience being blackout drink tend to feel comparable symptoms to simply being drunk. They are extremely friendly or extremely aggressive, feel carefree, cannot walk straight, and have slurred speech. Signs of blacking out or being blackout drink include not understanding normal speech, losing train of thought, and getting confused regarding recent events.
Several studies have shown that individuals who black out are at risk of a number of consequences.
Two direct consequences of excessive alcohol consumption are alcohol poisoning and death as a result of overdose. People who are blackout drink tend to carry on drinking alcohol because the alcohol has jeopardized their judgment. They may simply not recall how much they’ve drank, which leads them to keep on drinking—excessively.
In addition, they are likely to engage is extremely risky behavior. When blacked out, some people get into fights, drive cars, vandalize property, have unprotected sex, and abuse illicit drugs.
Long-Term Effects of a Blackout
At this time, it is unknown what the long-term effects of blacking out are. Short-term effects of abusing alcohol like slurred speech, coordination issues, and blurry vision all tend to fade once the alcohol has metabolized in the body, which can potentially take hours or sometimes days.
Unfortunately, the long-term effects of heavy and chronic alcohol abuse like nerve damage, liver damage, and increased risk of cancer don’t always go away. For instance, some individuals with minor liver issues can recovery from excessive alcohol consumption if they quit drinking, but they liver is unable to recover from the severe scarring and damage.
Chronic alcohol consumption can contribute to brain shrinkage similar to that of Alzheimer’s disease, which is distinguished by the loss of one’s memory. However, alcohol and Alzheimer’s disease have not been linked.
Regardless, numerous studies have associated excessive use of alcohol to memory and learning problems. It is unclear at this time whether a blackout can result in serious long-term damage. However, excessive alcohol consumption and engaging in dangerous behaviors while blacked out can result in severe long-term health effects.
Preventing Alcohol Blackouts
The easiest and most effective way to avoid a blackout is to consume alcohol is moderation. If you believe that you must consume alcohol for an extended period of time or heavily, then it is imperative that you pace yourself throughout the day or evening to ensure that your blood alcohol content levels do not rise too rapidly.
To prevent a blackout, you should do the following:
- Avoid drinking games and/or shots
- Drink slowly
- Remain hydrated with water
- Eat before consuming alcohol
- Eat more if you are drinking for an extended period of time
- Ask a friend who is sober to cut you off after so many alcoholic drinks
A good rule of thumb to go by is to limit yourself to one alcoholic beverage an hour and drink one glass of water for every alcoholic beverage you have.
Also, be familiar with blackout warning signs. If you are finding it difficult to remember recent events, concentrate, or keep track of a conversation, you may be on your way to blacking out. If you find yourself in this type of situation, locate an individual that you trust and get a ride a home.
If you are worried that your friend has had too much to drink, ask him or her to recall an event that has occurred within the last 15 minutes or so. If he or she is unable to remember, it may be possible that he or she has blacked out. It is important to safely get your friend home. If you notice the warning signs of alcohol poisoning or overdose like difficulty breathing, vomiting, or blue/cold skin, get medical help immediately.
If you believe that you blacked out, talk to some of your friends you were with regarding what occurred. If you had unprotected sex, make an appointment with your doctor and get tested for an STD. You can recover from the blackout by consuming water and electrolyte-laden beverages like sports drinks. You can also recover by eating lots of nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables.
When it comes to having fun, you do not need to drink excessively, drink quickly, or get blackout drunk. If you can’t control the amount of alcohol that you drink, it is best to avoid drinking completely. It is possible to have fun while staying sober. If you’ve previously experienced a blackout, you are at an increased risk of experiencing a blackout again and need to be cautious moving forward.
If you or a loved one have an alcohol addiction, it is important that you know that there is help. Contact us at Shadow Mountain Recovery to talk to one of our specialists about our alcohol detox solutions and how we can help get back on track.
Don’t wait another day to get the help you or a loved one needs. Call us now.