The Truth About Alcohol-Induced Blackouts

The loss of memory, even for just a short time, can be very scary. We rely on our memory for very important information every day, from our home address to our email passwords. Long-term memories help us create our identity. Childhood memories can be fun to recall and share with others, but they also ground us. Without those memories, good or bad, we don’t have a past, a history, or a foundation for our existence.

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Blackouts occur when parts of our memories are lost. They can cover a few hours or a few days, or blackouts can be more severe. Blackouts that occur as a result of alcohol abuse are sometimes predictable. Although alcohol remains the most socially acceptable drug, it is a potent substance that can cause severe health risks, including blackouts. Alcohol-induced blackouts can happen with almost any pattern drinking and can be quite serious.

What are Alcohol-Induced Blackouts?

If you are not much of a drinker, your only experience with alcohol induced blackouts may be from TV. Often crime dramas will include this phenomenon as part of a criminal defense. In the end, the viewer will discover the character who committed the crime wasn’t lying when he claimed he didn’t do it. Actually, he did it but has no recollection of the evening in question because he consumed way too much alcohol and blacked out.

You may have experienced an alcohol-induced blackout yourself and not really understood what was happening. Here’s a common three-part process:

  1. Have you ever woken up the morning after a party and been startled — and relieved — to find yourself safely tucked into bed?
  2. For the next couple hours you seem to have random recollections of the events of the night before.
  3. Out of the blue, you will remember bits and pieces of conversations, people, or how you got home.

Blackouts can be temporary or permanent. Depending on the severity of the damage caused to the brain, memories of the night in question return in bits and pieces. Sometimes they don’t return at all.

When someone is having a blackout, they don’t realize it is happening. While the alcohol is working on her brain, she thinks she is functioning normally. Even if she is aware that it is taking her longer to think of the words she wants to use or her coordination is severely impaired, a drunk person doesn’t realize she might not remember her actions when she sobers up.

The Biology Behind Alcohol-Induced Blackouts


It has taken years of study for scientists to understand how alcohol affects the brain, and there is still more work to be done. Blackouts are not the result of alcohol killing brain cells. What alcohol-induced blackouts are caused by is rather complicated.

Alcohol affects certain parts of the brain related to cognitive functions — your ability to think. Thoughts are carried through the brain in chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals fit into receptors, like a plug fits into an outlet. One way alcohol disrupts your thought process is by blocking these receptors so thoughts can’t “plug in.”

The process is even more complex because while some of the receptors are blocked, others are not:

  • When thoughts traveling around the brain in neurotransmitters are received, another chemical is required to turn them into a long-term memory.
  • Alcohol impacts how those chemicals are produced.
  • Alcohol acts on other parts of the brain to over-produce steroids.
  • These steroids attempt to block the brain’s ability to form memories.

Depending on the amount of alcohol you have consumed, and the random activities it is prohibiting or promoting, blackouts occur. In some cases, when the alcohol clears the brain, normal functioning is restored. Any thoughts that are still moving through the brain in neurotransmitters might be recovered and imprinted as memories. Some thoughts will be lost forever.

Alcohol-induced blackout effects can be permanent.

How Much Alcohol Causes Blackouts?

Binge drinking is the number one contributor to alcohol induced blackouts. Consuming too much alcohol too fast causes the amount of alcohol in the blood to rise quickly. Without a chance for the body to process the alcohol, the brain is flooded with damaging chemicals.


Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as consuming five or more drinks in a two-hour period and tends to be most common among college students. Still, others are guilty of binge drinking at celebrations or holidays, but college students tend to binge drink more frequently.

However, drinking slow and steady doesn’t protect your brain from blackouts. “Blackouts are much more common among social drinkers than previously assumed,” according to the National Institutes of Health. Just a few drinks can cause memory impairment, the severity of which depends on several factors, including the size and gender of the individual as well as his or her stomach content.

On an empty stomach, alcohol is absorbed more quickly into the blood stream. Women are more likely to experience blackouts from alcohol consumption when their rate of consumption is equal to that of men.

Several factors determine the amount of alcohol needed to induce blackouts, making it more of an individual standard. Therefore, there is no easy answer to the question of how much alcohol is too much.

Alcohol-Induced Amnesia

Once a blackout occurs, the next concern is whether the memory loss will be permanent. Will you ever remember what you did the night before you woke up with that horrible bruise on your cheek? Amnesia, the loss of memory, can be caused by a number of different factors. Brain damage, disease and psychological trauma are the most common causes of amnesia, but substance abuse is a culprit as well.

While it is more common for alcohol abuse to result in situational memory loss, the kind where you don’t remember who was at the party, it is possible for the damage to be much worse. Even if you consider yourself a social drinker, any memory loss you experience is a pretty good sign it is time to quit drinking before your brain is damaged any further.

What Can Blackouts Cause?

Alcohol-induced blackouts can cause people to put themselves in dangerous situations and then not remember enough to tell the authorities. Social embarrassment is another potential result of blackouts. If you’ve had so much to drink your brain is no longer recording memories of the evening’s events, chances are your actions are beyond your control. In this situation, you are likely to say and do things you normally wouldn’t, such as telling a friend what you really think of his significant other.

People who experience alcohol-induced blackouts sometimes get themselves into even bigger trouble. Imagine what it would be like to wake up with a black eye and not be able to report the crime because you have no recollection of who hit you. What if you had been raped, beaten or robbed? Blackouts take away your ability to protect yourself or get help.

How to Prevent Alcohol-Induced Blackouts


The most obvious way to avoid alcohol-induced blackouts is to abstain from using alcohol. Although it is socially acceptable in most places, alcohol is also a serious drug that, when abused, can cause harmful side effects such as amnesia. It is possible to live a full and happy life while completely avoiding alcohol, and many people do. Once you begin using alcohol socially or to self-medicate, it can be difficult to wean yourself off the habit.

Avoid Binge Drinking

Since the main cause of alcohol-related blackouts is a sharp, quick rise in the blood alcohol level, binge drinking is not an option. It may help to alternate between alcoholic drinks and non-alcoholic drinks if you choose to drink, but non-alcoholic drinks are always the safest option.

Stay Hydrated

Instead of a soda between each drink, you could try a glass of water. This will serve two purposes – it will slow down your consumption of alcohol and increase your hydration. Alcohol tends to make you feel dehydrated, causing you to drink more and perpetuating the cycle of dehydration. By balancing the dehydrating effects of alcohol with water, you will slow down your urge to drink and be able to better control the pace.

Take Care of Yourself

If you’ve ever had the feeling that what you drank went straight to your head, you were probably drinking on an empty stomach. When you drink, alcohol is not the only thing affecting your system. Proper nutrition, rest and exercise all contribute to your overall feeling of well-being.

Your ability to fight off any intruder and maintain your healthy balance is determined by how well you take care of yourself every day. If you are in good overall shape, you eat properly, get enough rest and exercise regularly, an occasional long night of drinking is less likely to cause blackouts.

Avoid Illegal Substances

Alcohol is a drug that should not be mixed with other drugs. Drinking alcohol and using any other substance at the same time is always a recipe for disaster. Even if you are taking over-the-counter cold medicines or pain relievers, you should avoid drinking until you are sure those drugs have cleared your system.

The combination of alcohol and other drugs is more likely to result in blackouts than just using alcohol alone. To reduce your risk of experiencing blackouts or amnesia, never mix alcohol with other drugs, and avoid illegal substances altogether.

How to Deal with Alcohol-Induced Blackouts

If you or someone you know experiences blackouts, take it as a sign that it is time to get help. Alcohol is by far the most commonly abused substance in our society. Because so many people use alcohol and it has been around for so long, many people think it is safe. Alcohol is a dangerous drug that can lead to a life-threatening addiction or even death.

Graphic4_Edited-300x222You are not alone; over one million people were treated for an alcohol-related disorder in 2013 according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Those are just the people who have sought help. There are many more struggling with alcohol addiction by themselves. Every year according to the NIAAA, almost 88,000 people die of alcohol related causes. Those are the ones who didn’t get help.

Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.

Blackouts are a warning sign that should not be ignored. Whether your abuse of alcohol is recent or a long-term pattern of behavior, you need help to stop damaging your brain before it becomes any more severe. At 12 Keys Rehab, we can help you figure out how to live a happy life without alcohol. Joy is not found at the bottom of a bottle, and we can prove it to you.

Brain damage is a serious matter you don’t want to have to live with. Contact 12 Keys and let us work with you on an < href="">individualized rehabilitation program that will clean up your brain and your life. Once you have undergone detox, some of the brain damage can heal and you will feel more like yourself again.

With the caring guidance you get at 12 Keys, you will learn different ways of coping to integrate into your daily routine.

Don’t settle for a life you can only half remember. Contact 12 Keys Rehab and start fighting for a fulfilling, sober life.

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