Definition of Blackout Drinking
Blackout drinking is primarily defined as memory loss from excessive drinking. If, after a night of drinking, you feel like you lost time or you find yourself wondering what you did, you likely blacked out.
Contrary to what the name might imply, blackout drinking – also called alcohol-induced amnesia – does not mean passing out. You can certainly pass out at the same time, but that is separate from blacking out. With blackout drinking you can still be conscious and interacting – you just aren’t making memories of those actions.
Blacking out from alcohol is considered to be anterograde amnesia. This means the alcohol interferes with the brain’s ability to make new memories, but it won’t erase memories that have already been made.
En Bloc and Fragmentary Blackouts
With en bloc blackouts, your ability to convert short term memories to long term memories has been completely blocked. You can’t remember any events that happen during an en bloc blackout. You still have your short-term memory. Some research seems to show you can remember things for up to 2 minutes. This means you can still have conversations and still seem to be somewhat “with it”.
Fragmentary blackouts have only partial memory loss. You might have a patchy memory or it might seem fuzzy. The biggest difference between en bloc and fragmentary blackouts seems to be that with fragmentary blackouts you can start to remember things later or if someone reminds you. With en bloc blackouts, the memories are lost forever.
Causes of Blackout Drinking
You blackout when your body experiences a high spike in your blood alcohol levels. Commonly, it’s related to binge drinking, which is excessive drinking in a short time period. Binge drinking is defined by the CDC as drinking 5 or more drinks, if you are a man, or 4 or more drinks, if you are a woman, in 2 hours.
Research shows that blackouts occur when the blood alcohol content spikes to 14 percent or higher. The alcohol suppresses your hippocampus and other parts of the brain that convert short-term memories to long-term. It was previously thought that the brain cells responsible for memory stop working or died. Now we know that it’s the receptors in the brain that get stimulated to produce steroids that interrupt the brain’s memory and learning abilities.
Who is More Prone to Blackouts?
Some people will experience blackouts while others won’t – even when drinking the same amount of alcohol. It depends on many different factors like body size and tolerance for alcohol. Even your genetics play a role. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to predict who will experience them and who won’t.
Once you experience a blackout, you are more likely to experience more in the future. Your brain changes in a way that makes them more likely to happen – it’s like a path is formed in your brain.
Because of its association with binge drinking, blackouts are very common among high schoolers and, especially, college students. Around half of all college students report blacking out at least once in their lifetime.
Research suggests that because of differences in the way men and women metabolize alcohol, women may be more susceptible to blacking out. Women have lower amounts of the enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, that metabolizes alcohol. Women also typically have higher body fat. Fat doesn’t absorb alcohol as well as muscle does, allowing for more of the alcohol to enter the bloodstream.
Other factors also play a part, such as drinking shots and hard liquor versus beer or wine and not eating before or during drinking. Drugs like sedatives and marijuana have also been shown to increase the likelihood of blacking out.
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Signs of Blackout Drinking
If you have consumed enough alcohol to impair your memory, you will experience all the common symptoms of being drunk, including:
- Difficulty walking
- Difficultly talking
- Impaired judgment
- Slowed reactions
In addition to these signs of being drunk, you will start to notice signs that a person is blacked out due to the lack of long-term memories being created. These might include:
- Lack of focus
- Constantly repeating themselves
- Lack of awareness
- Forgetting what they are doing or saying
Dangers of Blacking Out
The good news is blacking out one time doesn’t seem to cause brain damage and the brain and memory are quickly restored once the blood alcohol levels lower. However, studies are still being done and there is a lot that is still unknown. Binge drinking, which is closely associated with blackout drinking, has been shown to have lasting impacts on the brain – especially during adolescence.
Research done by neuroscience researcher Heather Richardson and her team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Louisiana State University found that binge drinking as an adolescent can alter the structure of the brain and impair cognitive and behavioral control. The study done on rats found that binge drinking damaged the myelin in the brain, which helps us think and process quickly. This damage appears to last for the rest of your life.
Often, people will engage in risky behavior while blackout drunk, including unprotected sex, vandalism, or even driving. Sometimes, the impacts of that risky behavior can be amplified by the inability to remember the events.
Likewise, blacking out for a woman can be similar to the effects of the date rape drug, leading to rape and other unwanted sexual experiences. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “About 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape”
One of the biggest dangers of blackouts is the view people, especially young, college-aged people, have of blacking out. For the most part blackout drinking is viewed as a harmless and normal part of high school and college.
This is far from the case. In addition to the dangers we’ve discussed above, repeated blackouts have been connected to alcohol use disorders, which is a general term to cover alcohol consumption that causes mental or physical problems. The excessive alcohol consumption typical for blackout drinking can set patterns and habits during adolescence that can lead to drug or alcohol addictions in the future.
How to Prevent Blackouts From Happening
While some factors, like your genetics or gender, are largely out of your control, there are several steps you can take to prevent blackouts and/or the dangers from blackouts.
- Limit the number of drinks you have and spread them out over several hours.
- Avoid shots – stick to drinks that you can sip over a long time period.
- Make sure to eat a full meal prior to going out.
- Drink water to limit your alcohol consumption.
- Don’t participate in drinking games that encourage heavy drinking in a short time frame.
- Have a trusted friend who will keep an eye on you just in case you blackout.
Treatment for Blackout Drinking
Whether or not you will require treatment for blackout drinking depends largely on the frequency of blacking out and the circumstances surrounding your alcohol consumption. While blacking out once doesn’t immediately point to a problem, the sad truth is that an estimated 20% of college students meet the screening criteria for an alcohol use disorder.
If you think your drinking might be spiraling into an alcohol use disorder, its important to reach out for help as soon as you can.
If you have any questions concerning alcohol abuse or alcohol rehab for yourself or a loved one, contact us at Truvida Recovery. Call 800-218-1573 to speak in confidence with an experienced treatment advisor now.