All About Addiction

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Alcohol - Blackouts, Brownouts and how they affect your body

Remember these holidays and avoid blacking out while drinking!

With the holiday season upon us, many Americans engage in heavier-than-usual drinking, especially in those family gathering that can bring on the stress that reminds you why you left home in the first place. Still, I'm pretty sure that the majority of you want to actually remember what you did last night or on Thanksgiving?

Aside from short bursts of heavy drinking, drinking heavily over a long time period (I mean years) can affect the brain and cause lasting damage including, but not limited to, slips in memory. These memory slips can be due to lack of blood flow to brain areas that are important for memory consolidation and are more commonly known as blackouts. Contrary to what most people seem to believe, blackouts often occur in social drinkers and are don't seem to be related to age or level of alcohol dependency.

Blackouts and the BAC (blood alcohol concentration) rate

Amnesia, or memory dysfunction, can begin to occur even with as few as one or two drinks containing alcohol. However, as the amount of alcohol intake increases so does the probability of memory impairment. Although sometimes heavy drinking alone will not cause blackouts, heavy drinking associated with drinking alcohol on an empty stomach or "chugging" alcoholic drinks often does cause blackouts.

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The estimated BAC (blood alcohol content) range for blackouts begins at levels .14%- .20%. Individuals who reached high BAC levels slowly experienced far less common occurrences of blackouts. Additionally, while blackouts can lead to forgetting entire events that happened while intoxicated, some individuals experience an inability to recall only parts of an event or episode unless prompted to do so (these are often called brownouts).

Blackouts can occur to anyone who drinks too much too fast. In a survey of college students, males and females had experienced an equal number of blackouts, although the men had consumed a significantly larger amount of alcohol than the females.

Although brain damage could potentially occur from heavy alcohol consumption, there is no evidence that blackouts are caused by brain damage per se. However, if brain damage is caused from excessive alcohol use, some studies show improvements in brain function with as little as a year of abstinence. Regardless of the possibility of reversing any effects, alcohol use causes damage in different areas of the body (including the liver), and those damages have been shown to occur more quickly among females.

Citations:

1. White, Aaron M., Signer, Matthew L., Kraus, Courtney L. and Swartzwelder, H. Scott(2004). Experiential Aspects of Alcohol-Induced Blackouts Among College Students, The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse,30:1,205 — 224

2. Alcohol Alert (2004) . Alcoholic Brain Damage. Alcohol Research & Health, Vol. 27.

 

© 2010 Adi Jaffe, All Rights Reserved

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Adi Jaffe, Ph.D., is the executive director of Alternatives Behavioral Health and a lecturer at UCLA and California State University Long Beach.

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