4 Things You Need To Know About Alcohol-Induced Blackouts

With the recent release of Sarah Hepola’s memoir, “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget,” people are beginning to discuss the dangers and frequency of alcohol-induced blackouts. In a society so heavily saturated with drinking culture, it came as a surprise to Hepola that she had to explain in her book what defines a blackout.

alcohol-induced blackouts

As it turns out, many people mistake blackouts for being rendered unconscious from drinking too much. What most of us simply refer to as passing out. On the contrary, during a blackout, the person is very much awake and active, far from unconscious.

1) What is an Alcohol-Induced Blackout?

Blackouts are defined as periods of amnesia caused by excessive alcohol consumption. This is where a person is actively engaging in normal behaviors. From simple tasks like eating food to more aggressive behaviors like having a fight or engaging in sexual intercourse. However, the person will have little to no recall of events that took place during the blackout period. The high concentration of alcohol causes the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory to shut down. Simply put by Hepola, “The blood reaches a certain alcohol saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus—the part of the brain making long-term memories.”

The intoxicated person will be participating in all sorts of activities, but the recorder in their brain is turned off.

You’re Still There

Hepola elaborates, “Your short-term memory still works, but short-term memory lasts less than two minutes, which explains why wasted people can follow a conversation from point to point, but they will repeat themselves after some time has passed.”

The drinker repeating themselves is one sign that they may be in a blackout. Another possible sign is that they will have a vacant look in their eyes where they don’t appear to be fully focused and present.

These are clues that may point to a potential alcohol-induced blackout. However, there is really no way of knowing for sure when a person is in a blackout. Aaron White, Ph.D., senior adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says,

“It can be quite difficult for an outside observer to tell if someone is in a blackout. The person could seem aware and articulate, but without any memory being recorded.”

2) There Are Two Types of Blackouts

Fragmentary blackouts only partially block memory formation in the brain of the intoxicated individual. In this case, people will have spotty memory of events that transpired. They will be able to recall details more easily when others help to jog their memory. These reminders trigger information that was initially missing. Fragmentary blackouts tend to be more common than the more serious en bloc blackouts.

En bloc blackouts are defined by large chunks of time, up to several hours, missing from a person’s memory due to excessive alcohol consumption. In this incidence, people will be completely unable to recall any events that occurred. No cues or reminders from others will aid in recalling details. The process of transferring short-term memory into long-term storage has been blocked. People can continue to engage in complex behaviors. Sadly, no information about these events will exist in the individual’s memory following the en bloc blackout.

3) What Causes Someone to Blackout?

Though it is still unclear why some people experience blackouts and some don’t, despite consuming the same amount of alcohol, the recipe for a blackout is fairly straightforward. Dr. White explains, “Alcohol is more likely to cause a blackout when it gets into your body, and therefore your brain, fast. It catches the memory circuits off guard and shuts them down. Doing shots or chugging beer, and doing it on an empty stomach, gets the alcohol into your bloodstream quickly.”

The rapid rise in Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) is likely to cause a blackout.

This explains why blackouts are very common among college students. They are more inexperienced drinkers and tend to drink faster, not aware of how much alcohol they are actually consuming. “Studies tell us at least half of young people who drink experience a blackout before they graduate college,” says Dr. White.

Women are also at a particularly higher risk for blackouts.

They tend to weigh less than men. Alcohol is not as easily diluted in their bodies due to lower water content, causing higher levels of alcohol in the brain. Women also do not have as much alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme in the gut as men do. The enzyme breaks down a small percentage of the alcohol before it gets into the body. Studies have also indicated that women are more likely to eat less or skip meals to compensate for the calories in alcohol. Thus making blackouts much more likely as the alcohol gets into the bloodstream faster without food being present to absorb some of it.

4) Preventing Blackouts

While the occurrence of blackouts may be a significant indicator of alcoholism, it’s important to remember that blackouts can happen to anyone. They do not just affect those classified as “alcoholics.”

All levels of drinkers from light to moderate and heavy drinkers can experience alcohol-induced blackouts.

There are steps you can take to prevent a blackout.

  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Pace yourself by drinking slowly or having non-alcoholic beverages between drinks
  • Eat while drinking to help to slow the rise of your blood alcohol concentration making a blackout less likely.

Sources: 


https://ncadd.org/in-the-news/374-new-studies-shed-much-needed-light-on-alcohol-induced-memory-blackouts
http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/06/health/blackouts-drinking-book-sarah-hepola/
http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/186-196.htm
http://www.spectrum.niaaa.nih.gov/archives/V6I2Jun2014/features/light.html

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