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Binge Drinking

What Happens When You Black Out From Drinking?

Published:
June 19, 2023
·
11 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 19, 2023
·
11 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 19, 2023
·
11 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 19, 2023
·
11 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Reframe Content Team
June 19, 2023
·
11 min read

We've all heard the stories that start with, "I was having such a good time last night, but I don't remember how I got home." This is often met with a hearty laugh or two, and life goes on. 

Blackouts from drinking are highly normalized in society, but they shouldn’t be. The truth is, blackouts are more than short-term memory gaps. They’re hazards to our well-being. 

So what is a blackout, on a neurological level? What causes blackouts? And most importantly, how do we prevent blackouts?  

What Is a Blackout?

First, let's take a moment to understand what's really happening in our body and brain when we experience a blackout. 

A blackout is not about “passing out” — losing consciousness or falling asleep — on the couch. It’s not only about forgetting parts of a drunken night. A blackout involves a significant disruption in the brain's memory creation process due to alcohol.

Imagine you’re a journalist conducting an important interview for an article. A blackout is similar to realizing, the next morning, that none of your important conversation saved –– even though you thought you pressed “record” and may still have the vaguest sense of what was said. 

In a blackout, it's as if our brain has hit the "pause" button on its memory-recording function. This happens because alcohol, particularly in large quantities, interferes with the hippocampus, the part of our brain responsible for creating new memories. 

When the hippocampus creates new memories, it transfers them from short- to long-term memory storage. Excess drinking in a short period of time blocks this transfer. As a result, we experience temporary memory loss.

Blackout types & symptoms" - Concise description of different blackout types and their associated symptoms

Blackouts: Understanding the Different Types

When we black out from drinking, we're experiencing a temporary form of amnesia. We can't recall events that occurred while we were intoxicated. 

There are two types of blackouts, depending on how severe the impairments to our memory:

  1. Fragmentary blackouts: In this type of blackout, memories are recalled as “islands” or isolated clusters with missing periods of time in between.
  2. “En block” blackouts: These blackouts mean complete amnesia, in which the entire episode is blocked out. Since memories were not at all made during this timespan, none can be recovered. When we experience en block blackouts, it feels like nothing happened. 

Both types of blackouts can lead us to perform actions we later regret, such as sending drunk texts or getting into arguments. We may also experience anxiety as a result of not remembering anything the night before. Over time, this can lead to a cycle of shame, regret, and mental health struggles

What Causes Blackouts?

Here's a surprising fact: we don't necessarily have to be falling-over-drunk to experience a blackout. Research shows that blackouts can occur after consuming just 3-4 drinks in an hour, especially on an empty stomach. That's about the equivalent of three glasses of wine or three bottles of beer.

We may not be falling down from this amount of alcohol, but it is considered binge drinking. When we drink in excess within a short time frame, our bodies struggle to process the alcohol, leading to a rapid rise in blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Because alcohol affects men and women differently, due to body size and composition, the definitions of binge drinking differ as follows:

  • Individuals assigned male at birth: Five or more drinks in about 2 hours.
  • Individuals assigned female at birth: Four or more drinks within 2 hours.
  • Nonbinary individuals: To understand the parameters of binge drinking in trans and/or gender-expansive individuals, more research is needed at this time.

Remember, it's not just about how much we drink, but how quickly we drink. Downing our drinks rapidly spikes the alcohol level in our bloodstream. This spike overwhelms the hippocampus, disrupting the memory and leading to a blackout.

Why Is Blacking Out a Problem?

While we might be tempted to shrug off a blackout as a one-time event, frequently getting blackout drunk could point towards a larger issue. Chronic heavy drinking can lead to severe health issues: liver disease, heart disease, and an increased risk of certain cancers, just to name a few. 

In addition to physical health risks, blacking out can also place us in risky or outright dangerous situations. For instance, consider driving home after a night out. Our brain is functioning without the ability to form new memories, impairing our decision-making ability and potentially leading to disastrous outcomes — crashes, DUIs, or worse.

When do we know when our drinking might be problematic? We might believe that we're just social drinkers, enjoying a couple of glasses with friends. However, if we're frequently waking up with hazy memories or unexplained bruises, it might be time to reassess our relationship with alcohol.

Experiencing frequent blackouts is a sign that our drinking is problematic: we’re consistently consuming alcohol at a level that is physically altering how our brain works. The long-term risks are not worth the temporary fix for which many of us turn to alcohol.

How To Stop Getting Blackout Drunk

Blacking out isn't just about a forgotten drunken night; it points to a deep relationship between our brain, our behavior, and the outcomes of our lives. 

If we feel our relationship to drinking has become overwhelming, the key lies in recognizing, understanding, and taking steps towards change.

We're not powerless in the face of this challenge. A good first step is to keep an eye on how much we're drinking, how often, how quickly, and what emotions surround our decision.

Seeking community and professional help may be crucial if we're struggling to manage our drinking habits on our own. If you’re worried for yourself or someone you love, help is available. Reach out! Your long-term well-being is always worth it.

We've all heard the stories that start with, "I was having such a good time last night, but I don't remember how I got home." This is often met with a hearty laugh or two, and life goes on. 

Blackouts from drinking are highly normalized in society, but they shouldn’t be. The truth is, blackouts are more than short-term memory gaps. They’re hazards to our well-being. 

So what is a blackout, on a neurological level? What causes blackouts? And most importantly, how do we prevent blackouts?  

What Is a Blackout?

First, let's take a moment to understand what's really happening in our body and brain when we experience a blackout. 

A blackout is not about “passing out” — losing consciousness or falling asleep — on the couch. It’s not only about forgetting parts of a drunken night. A blackout involves a significant disruption in the brain's memory creation process due to alcohol.

Imagine you’re a journalist conducting an important interview for an article. A blackout is similar to realizing, the next morning, that none of your important conversation saved –– even though you thought you pressed “record” and may still have the vaguest sense of what was said. 

In a blackout, it's as if our brain has hit the "pause" button on its memory-recording function. This happens because alcohol, particularly in large quantities, interferes with the hippocampus, the part of our brain responsible for creating new memories. 

When the hippocampus creates new memories, it transfers them from short- to long-term memory storage. Excess drinking in a short period of time blocks this transfer. As a result, we experience temporary memory loss.

Blackout types & symptoms" - Concise description of different blackout types and their associated symptoms

Blackouts: Understanding the Different Types

When we black out from drinking, we're experiencing a temporary form of amnesia. We can't recall events that occurred while we were intoxicated. 

There are two types of blackouts, depending on how severe the impairments to our memory:

  1. Fragmentary blackouts: In this type of blackout, memories are recalled as “islands” or isolated clusters with missing periods of time in between.
  2. “En block” blackouts: These blackouts mean complete amnesia, in which the entire episode is blocked out. Since memories were not at all made during this timespan, none can be recovered. When we experience en block blackouts, it feels like nothing happened. 

Both types of blackouts can lead us to perform actions we later regret, such as sending drunk texts or getting into arguments. We may also experience anxiety as a result of not remembering anything the night before. Over time, this can lead to a cycle of shame, regret, and mental health struggles

What Causes Blackouts?

Here's a surprising fact: we don't necessarily have to be falling-over-drunk to experience a blackout. Research shows that blackouts can occur after consuming just 3-4 drinks in an hour, especially on an empty stomach. That's about the equivalent of three glasses of wine or three bottles of beer.

We may not be falling down from this amount of alcohol, but it is considered binge drinking. When we drink in excess within a short time frame, our bodies struggle to process the alcohol, leading to a rapid rise in blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Because alcohol affects men and women differently, due to body size and composition, the definitions of binge drinking differ as follows:

  • Individuals assigned male at birth: Five or more drinks in about 2 hours.
  • Individuals assigned female at birth: Four or more drinks within 2 hours.
  • Nonbinary individuals: To understand the parameters of binge drinking in trans and/or gender-expansive individuals, more research is needed at this time.

Remember, it's not just about how much we drink, but how quickly we drink. Downing our drinks rapidly spikes the alcohol level in our bloodstream. This spike overwhelms the hippocampus, disrupting the memory and leading to a blackout.

Why Is Blacking Out a Problem?

While we might be tempted to shrug off a blackout as a one-time event, frequently getting blackout drunk could point towards a larger issue. Chronic heavy drinking can lead to severe health issues: liver disease, heart disease, and an increased risk of certain cancers, just to name a few. 

In addition to physical health risks, blacking out can also place us in risky or outright dangerous situations. For instance, consider driving home after a night out. Our brain is functioning without the ability to form new memories, impairing our decision-making ability and potentially leading to disastrous outcomes — crashes, DUIs, or worse.

When do we know when our drinking might be problematic? We might believe that we're just social drinkers, enjoying a couple of glasses with friends. However, if we're frequently waking up with hazy memories or unexplained bruises, it might be time to reassess our relationship with alcohol.

Experiencing frequent blackouts is a sign that our drinking is problematic: we’re consistently consuming alcohol at a level that is physically altering how our brain works. The long-term risks are not worth the temporary fix for which many of us turn to alcohol.

How To Stop Getting Blackout Drunk

Blacking out isn't just about a forgotten drunken night; it points to a deep relationship between our brain, our behavior, and the outcomes of our lives. 

If we feel our relationship to drinking has become overwhelming, the key lies in recognizing, understanding, and taking steps towards change.

We're not powerless in the face of this challenge. A good first step is to keep an eye on how much we're drinking, how often, how quickly, and what emotions surround our decision.

Seeking community and professional help may be crucial if we're struggling to manage our drinking habits on our own. If you’re worried for yourself or someone you love, help is available. Reach out! Your long-term well-being is always worth it.

Take Charge and Thrive With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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