If you’ve been here before, you may wonder why do I blackout when I drink? It’s not an uncommon question and, certainly, not an unusual event. Memory lapse and blackouts are very much an indication of overconsumption of alcohol that can be dangerous and even lethal. Blacking out when drinking is not a healthy level to surpass, but it is entirely preventable.
After a night out binge drinking, waking up usually brings forth an alcohol-induced hangover’s unforgettable pain and misery. While having an occasional wild bender can feel euphoric and exciting, a memorable evening out may prove to be otherwise. Many people who have ever experienced a blackout when drinking may assume that it happens at random or for no reason at all, but that’s actually not true. There is a well-defined scientific reason why the brain cannot store new memories after drinking a certain amount of booze. That scientific insight may also shed light on why heavy drinking can cause continued memory loss even after alcohol is no longer in the system.
If you often find yourself experiencing memory loss after drinking alcohol, it’s important to understand how detrimental alcohol can be to the brain, liver, and overall health. Alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. Getting help for alcohol addiction can set you free from an endless cycle of blackouts. Contact AspenRidge Recovery in Colorado for more information on alcohol substance abuse treatment programs.
Defining Alcohol-Induced Blackouts
If you’ve ever asked yourself why do I blackout when I drink, it’s best to explain how alcohol impacts the physical self. Effectively, there are differences between blackouts and memory loss. Blackout doesn’t necessarily mean that a person loses consciousness, like falling asleep or passing out. Instead, people will often continue to interact with others, engage in groups or even dangerous behavior, and continue drinking. Risky behavior that comes with blacking out can include any of the following:
- Driving while intoxicated
- Engaging in sexual activity with little to no memory
- Destroying property
- Spending too much money
It’s also possible for individuals to engage in other risky behavior outside their normal daily interactions.
The American Addiction Centers defines an alcoholic-induced blackout as memory loss as it corresponds with alcohol abuse. It happens most commonly when drinking too much alcohol and can be specifically associated with binge drinking. Typically, the condition is induced when a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches 0.15 or greater. For comparison, it is illegal to drive with a BAC of 0.08 in nearly every U.S. state.
Alcohol poisoning and other deadly factors are more common among drinkers who are experiencing a blackout episode. It is possible to pass out while experiencing a blackout. In large part, this is due to the quantity of alcohol consumed, and it could lead to any of the following deadly events:
- Choking on Vomit
- Suffering a head injury from falling
- Experiencing alcohol poisoning
- Suffering from seizures due to alcohol amounts in the body
Lastly, researchers are studying what’s technically called an “alcohol-induced fragmentary blackout” or what is more widely known as a brownout. During this event, individuals may experience spotty memory and basic, partial memory loss.
During a fragmentary blackout, you can remember bits and pieces if you’re given clues. “You are conscious and participating in these complex behaviors, but the brain isn’t necessarily online, taking in the information and remembering what’s going on.” – Regan Wetherill, Ph.D
Why Do I Blackout When I Drink?
Why is memory so elusive when alcohol clouds our systems? Not an uncommon question that many people wonder is, why do I blackout when I drink? Why does my body respond to alcohol in such a way?
To answer these questions, let’s take a look at how memory is formed. According to the modal model of memory, the more widely-accepted model of memory formation, it states that creating memories follows a three-step process:
- Sensory memory
- Short-term memory
- Long-term memory
To break this down, sensory memory is our first form of filtering events and usually lasts several seconds. If perceived information is determined significantly, it follows through to short-term memory, lasting several seconds to several minutes. Long-term memory, on the other hand, results from deep processing, motivation, and rehearsal.
In short, our brains must have full functionality to perceive an event and interpret what it means to us in order for it to be stored in the short- or long-term. Alcohol inhibits the brain from making these needed perceptions. It effectively by-passes the filtration system that our memory needs to store these events for any length of time.
Alcoholic blackouts happen as a result of a rapid rise in blood alcohol levels. At a certain point, your brain loses the ability to form and retrieve memories. For most people, a blood alcohol level (BAC) of at least .14 percent will induce a lapse of memory.
Reasons for Experiencing Blackouts When Drinking
If a blackout episode has happened to you, it’s essential to consider the reasons for it. For many, the experience of a blackout is unexpected and very frightening. Avoiding this is imperative, considering the circumstances that create this phenomenon.
Some factors that contribute to alcohol blackouts include:
Drinking too much too fast
The liver is the organ responsible for filtering out toxins like alcohol. When you’re intoxicated, the liver is working extremely hard to absorb the booze and rid itself of this foreign poison. However, the liver can only process a finite amount of alcohol at one time. These quantities vary from person to person depending on size, weight, gender, and even the balance of brain chemicals like dopamine. Depending on these factors, unfiltered alcohol is left to be carried through the bloodstream until the liver has the capacity to process it. If the excess alcohol is over that 0.14 percent threshold, a blackout is likely to occur.
Rather than drinking too much too fast, consider what health experts deem as moderate drinking limits. The Mayo Clinic defines moderate alcohol use for healthy adults as one drink for women per day and up to two drinks per day for men. Even more helpful would be to abstain from alcohol use altogether.
Drinking on an empty stomach
Did you know that eating plays a significant role in how your body handles alcohol? The small intestine most quickly absorbs alcohol. Consequently, the longer alcohol stays in the stomach, the slower it is absorbed and impacted throughout the body.
Food prevents alcohol from passing too quickly into your small intestine. Without food in the system, the alcohol can pass rapidly from the stomach to the small intestine, where most of it is then absorbed into the bloodstream. This intensifies all the side effects of drinking, especially blackout episodes.
Why Do I Blackout When I Drink: Risks
Very few believe that getting so drunk you lose your memory doesn’t carry serious health consequences. In fact, a new study conducted in September 2020 has found that an inconsolable hangover is not the only price you pay when binge drinking. These searchers have found that drinking to the point of losing consciousness could have long-term health implications.
Heavy drinkers who suffer continuous blackout episodes could be at a greater risk of developing dementia, the study reports.
Researchers analyzed the dementia diagnosis of over 130,000 people who had reported their drinking habits over 14 years within the study. They found that those who reported losing consciousness after drinking had double the risk of dementia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Alzheimer’s disease is one of the top ten leading causes of death in the U.S.
“Alcohol impairs an important part of the brain called glutamate receptors, which are necessary for brain cells to strengthen the transfer of information between neurons. This ultimately affects the retrieval of memory.” -Dr. Kevin Conner, a neurologist at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital
Alcohol Treatment Care & Support
Experts say that alcohol impairs essential parts of brain function, and while some alcohol-induced damage can heal, there is a significant risk of permanent injury. Finding help for alcohol addiction is a critical first step in avoiding long-term health complications. If you’re questioning why do I blackout when I drink, it’s possible that you’ve already considered finding support for alcohol misuse.
Rest assured, just because you blacked out last weekend after a night of heavy drinking and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an alcoholic. However, if blackouts are a frequent occurrence and are even starting to negatively impact your life, it may be a sign of an underlying addiction. If you think you or someone you know has become an alcoholic, have a look at this short quiz to get a better idea of the situation.
Although blackouts do not necessarily indicate that a person has a drinking problem, they may increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Address these concerns through establishing alcohol addiction treatment programs like those through AspenRidge Recovery.
AspenRidge Alcohol Abuse & Recovery
AspenRidge’s trained, board-certified therapists, medical staff, and counselors offer counseling and rehab programs for those who are addicted to alcohol. Our Colorado alcohol addiction treatment programs take on a dual diagnosis approach. We guide clients using evidence- and holistic-based treatment modalities to address alcoholism and the underlying issues that exacerbate it.
Various options include:
- Day Partial Hospitalization (PHP)
- Day Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)
- AspenRidge REACH Online IOP
- IOP for Professionals and Working Adults
- Outpatient Program
- Alumni & Aftercare Program
Online Alcohol Therapy Program
Online alcohol addiction counseling is now a Colorado statewide program that is an excellent option for individuals that can help more Coloradans access safe and successful treatment.
AspenRidge’s REACH Colorado online alcohol addiction program has received great results and high customer satisfaction from both board-certified counselors and clients. Individual and small-group virtual therapy has been as effective in treating alcohol use disorder and the underlying mental health issues that may impact long-term recovery.