What Happens to Your Brain When You Blackout from Being Drunk

Do not know how you got home after a night of drinking? Have a complete blackout? You are not alone. Alcohol causes these dangerous changes in your brain when you are drunk, giving you temporary amnesia.

After a night of drinking, have you ever woken up unable to remember how you got home? Had a tear or stain on your shirt that you cannot figure out where it came from? End up in a prison cell for reasons unknown? Has your partner been livid with you about an argument you do not remember having? The cause of these memory lapses is an alcohol-induced blackout – and it is fairly common, despite not exactly being healthy.

What is an Alcohol-induced Blackout?

There are two terms used for blackouts which occur as an effect of alcohol consumption: en bloc, and fragmentary. Fragmentary blackouts mean that the person is missing bits and pieces of their memory from the previous drinking episode. Usually, once reminded of the events, the person is able to recall them fully. As this is not a complete blackout, it is sometimes referred to as a brownout.

En bloc blackouts, on the other hand, refer to blackouts of long periods of time. Often, the drinker will have memories up to a certain point, after which they can remember absolutely nothing for the rest of the night. Even when reminded of the events (which are often quite embarrassing or even dangerous), the person is unable to bring the memories back.

Keep in mind that unlike passing out, the person experiencing the blackout typically appears normal on the outside. Other than the fact that by this point they are quite drunk, they are able to carry on with conversations and partake in activities. Blackouts are usually only apparent the next morning when the person realises they cannot recall the previous night’s events.

The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain which Cause Blackouts

Blackouts are caused by high blood-alcohol content (BAC). At a BAC of 0.15 (twice the legal amount that is considered safe to drive), blackouts begin to appear in certain drinkers. At 0.20, blackouts become quite common. But the question still remains – what is happening to your brain when these blackouts occur?

Receptors in the brain transmit glutamate, which carries signals to other parts of the brain. During an episode of binge drinking, alcohol interferes with this process, preventing neurons from communicating normally. This disrupts the long-term potentiation (LTP) which is considered necessary for proper memory functions.

So basically, consuming large quantities of alcohol means that the brain loses its ability to create new memories – a similar effect to those suffering from anterograde amnesia. As mentioned above, those experiencing a blackout will still be able to partake in late night activities, they just will not build any memories of the events. But, of course, that is where the danger comes in. In these states of interrupted transmission, the drinkers are not exhibiting their best judgement. This is where dangerous activities come into play, such as unsafe sex, drunk driving, getting into fights or arguments and boisterous play that ends with a trip to the emergency room.

Are Blackouts a Sign of Alcoholism?

Blackouts alone are not enough evidence to say whether or not someone is suffering from alcoholism. It is safe to say, however, that memory blanks induced by alcohol are a clear sign of problematic drinking – especially when they happen frequently. That being said, certain factors make certain people more at risk for blackouts. For example, women have less water content in their bodies as a general rule, and thus women are more likely to experience blackouts than men as their BAC rises more quickly.

Anyone who partakes in binge drinking, however, is susceptible to blackouts. And because binge drinking even once, can be more harmful than most people realise, if you or anyone you know is suffering from alcohol-induced blackouts it may be a good idea to put the bottle down, at least for a while. But even still, it is impossible to pin alcoholism on someone just because they have blacked out once or twice in their life. The true detection of alcoholism lies in whether or not your life is negatively affected in any way due to alcohol. Do relationships suffer? Are you falling behind at work or school? Is your health affected? If yes, you may want to speak to someone regarding your alcohol consumption. If blackouts are happening frequently, then you should definitely look into changing your habits.

Avoiding Alcohol-induced Blackouts

As an addiction treatment centre, we obviously believe that abstinence is the best policy if you are at all concerned with your drinking habits. However, for those that can manage to drink without developing dependence, there are ways to minimise the chances of blacking out and in turn, minimise the dangers of alcohol consumption for you and those around you:

  1. Drink weaker drinks and stay hydrated.
    Do not walk into the party and head straight for a shot of tequila. One beer, one glass of wine, and one shot of spirits deliver roughly the same amount of alcohol. So choose a drink that you can sip slowly, giving your body more time to process the alcohol. As well, drinking a full glass of water in between every alcoholic drink is a good way to maintain a lower BAC level and stay hydrated.
  2. Have a full stomach.
    Eating food before consuming alcohol will make a huge difference in how quickly the alcohol is absorbed into your blood. Foods high in protein are especially good, as they take a long time to digest, keeping the liver from being overloaded.
  3. Do not mix alcohol with medications.
    Most medications are not meant to be mixed with alcohol. Be sure to read the packaging and follow the advice. It is there for a reason. If it says you should not drink while taking the medication, do not drink! The effects on your liver could be disastrous, and your chances of blacking out will increase.

Once you have experienced blackouts, your chances of experiencing them again increase. And because these lapses in memory are caused by large amounts of alcohol, it is a good idea to lay off the booze, at least for a while. Even ‘brownouts’ are dangerous to your health. If memory lapse is common for you when you drink, you may be developing, or already have, an addiction to alcohol.

If you think your drinking may be out of control, contact a counsellor at one of The Cabin Addiction Services Group locations for a free assessment. The negative effects of alcohol abuse on the body are nothing to be taken lightly.

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