Alcohol is socially accepted, extremely accessible, and sometimes impossible to avoid, which means just about everyone consumes it at one time or another. However, while some people are able to limit their alcohol consumption and only drink moderately in social settings, others have a much more difficult time controlling their urge to drink.
For these individuals, drinking alcohol is often more about getting drunk than it is relaxing and socializing with friends. Once they start drinking, they seem unable to stop until they get blackout drunk.
A blackout occurs when large amounts of beer, wine, liquor, or other alcohol are consumed in a short time, which can have a startling effect on brain function and interrupt its ability to create new memories. When this happens, people can become unable to remember what they were doing, where they were, and who they were with.
Unlike passing out, a person can walk, talk, and function in a blackout but simply not remember doing so. Needless to say, this can be extremely dangerous, leading a person to attempt to drive or take part in other risky behaviors.
But what exactly is a blackout, and what happens to the brain when someone gets blackout drunk? Understanding the specifics of this all too common phenomenon can help you avoid potentially harmful and life-threatening situations.
What is a Black Out?
A blackout is a non-permanent condition that affects a person’s memory, resulting in the sense of lost time. This occurs when alcohol levels in the body exceed a certain point. It doesn’t erase memories created prior to intoxication; instead, it impairs the brain’s ability to create new memories.
As you consume more alcohol and increase your blood alcohol levels, the length and rate of memory loss increase; The severity of memory loss differs from person to person.
That said, studies estimate the chances of getting blackout drunk are approximately 50 percent when blood alcohol levels reach 0.22 percent. When your blood alcohol levels reach this threshold, you may experience a blackout and be unable to remember anything beyond this point.
Other impairments you may experience during this time include:
- Difficulty standing and walking
- Difficulty talking
- Impaired vision
- Impaired judgment
The amount of alcohol needed to reach this level of impairment is different for each person. Some of the factors that can affect blood alcohol levels include:
- A person’s gender
- A person’s weight and body composition
- The specific type of alcohol consumed
- The length of time in which the alcohol is consumed
Considering these factors, a blackout isn’t triggered by any set number of drinks. It is different for each individual person and situation.
What Causes a Black Out?
Blackouts are commonly associated with alcohol consumption. Drinking too much alcohol, drinking too quickly, or drinking alcohol on an empty stomach can lead to a blackout.
However, blackouts can also occur due to:
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Oxygen restriction
- Epileptic seizures
- Psychogenic seizures
- Taking certain medications
What Happens During a Black Out?
Consuming alcohol can impair your ability to talk, walk, react, and remember events. Alcohol also hinders impulse control, lowers inhibitions, and affects decision-making.
These neural functions are regulated by the brain’s reward pathway. While this specific section of the brain can develop tolerance to alcohol, this isn’t the case with the hippocampus.
Located deep within the brain, the hippocampus plays a critical role in forming memories. Since it can’t develop long-term tolerance to alcohol, it’s unable to create new memories when someone gets blackout drunk.
When discussing blackouts, it’s important to note that a blackout is different than passing out. A person who passes out simply falls asleep from alcohol consumption.
During a blackout, however, an intoxicated person is often able to function as normal. Since the other parts of the brain have built up a tolerance for alcohol, they can usually still walk, talk, eat, have sex, and so on; they just can’t remember doing so. This makes it difficult for others to recognize when someone is blackout drunk.
Short and Long-Term Effects of Blacking Out
In addition to short-term effects, like blacking out, heavy drinking or binge drinking can also have long-term effects on the brain.
Since chronic alcohol consumption is thought to cause damage to the frontal lobe, everything from momentary memory slips to debilitating conditions can occur. This part of the brain is responsible for controlling cognitive function and also plays a role in forming both short- and long-term memories.
Regular frontal lobe damage can also impact a person’s personality and behavior as well as how they store information and perform tasks. It’s believed that heavy drinking can impair this area of the brain.
Frequent blackouts can also lead to long-term memory loss and issues with memory retention. Some evidence also suggests it can be a contributing factor in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Getting blackout drunk even once can be dangerous. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states alcohol causes a delay in the brain signals responsible for controlling gag reflexes and similar autonomic responses. This means someone who has blacked out can throw up during their sleep and possibly suffocate or choke on their vomit.
Of course, getting blackout drunk can also increase the likelihood of injury from a car crash or falling down.
Black Out Demographics: Who’s Most At Risk?
Despite the dangers, blackouts are surprisingly common, especially for younger drinkers. Young adults and adolescents are more likely to engage in binge drinking. Not only are they more likely to drink quickly, but they are also more likely to drink more per binge.
Since they are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally, younger people who frequently binge drink and get blackout drunk are also more likely to suffer long-term memory and cognitive problems later in life.
Women are also more likely to blackout than men. This is due to their physiology. In addition to being smaller than men, women have different hormones and body composition, making them unable to drink as much as men before they become intoxicated.
Can Black Outs Be Prevented?
Blackouts can be prevented by abstaining from alcohol or practicing moderation. Binge drinking, which is consuming four or more drinks in a two-hour span, should be avoided as well.
You can also minimize your risk of getting blackout drunk by:
The stomach is a small muscle with minimal ability to absorb liquids. Instead, liquids are primarily absorbed via the small intestine, which is covered by villi responsible for increasing membrane surface area. The key, however, is the valve connecting the stomach to the small intestine. When a person eats, alcohol takes longer to pass through the valve and into his or her bloodstream.
Consuming alcohol causes dehydration, so the more someone drinks, the more dehydrated they will become. When well-hydrated, people tend to drink alcohol less quickly, resulting in small sips rather than big chugs and a lower likelihood of becoming blackout drunk.
Getting Plenty of Rest
Lack of rest and exhaustion can take a toll on the body. Blackouts are more likely when someone is sleep-deprived. So, getting enough sleep and rest can help minimize the chance of blacking out.
The quicker you drink, the more likely you are to become drunk in a shorter amount of time. Instead of coming on gradually, drunkenness will sneak up on you out of nowhere and increase your odds of becoming blackout drunk. Pacing your drinking is the key to avoiding this. For every alcoholic drink you have, try drinking at least one glass of water. Not only will you stay better hydrated, but you will slow down your pace as well.
It may seem obvious, but cutting back on the amount of alcohol you drink will also help you avoid getting blackout drunk. In addition to cutting back on the number of drinks you have, you can also try reducing the amount of alcohol you put in each drink. Decreasing the ratio of alcohol to juice, soda water, or any other non-alcoholic beverage in each drink can mean the difference between having a fun, memorable time and blacking out.
Blacking out from alcohol differs from one person to the next. What you drink, how much you drink, how quickly you drink, and your physiology all play a role in whether or not you get blackout drunk. These factors also help determine the severity of your blackout and how long it will last.