I know what you did last summer… For those of us who tend to black out frequently, only one line could be scarier: I know what you did last night. If you happen to embody the one-who-always-blacks-out archetype, you’ve come to the right place, as we’re going to dispel some of the most common misconceptions around this phenomenon and finally shed some light on the dark truth behind blackouts.
The general premise is similar for everyone — you’re having a drink (ahem, a few drinks), and everyone in your group is doing exactly the same. And then… Well, actually, there’s no then. At least, for you. So how does that happen that you lose memories and why are you the only one to experience that?
What are blackouts?
Alcohol-related amnesia, or alcohol-related blackouts, are gaps in a person’s memory for events that occurred while they were intoxicated. As it turns out, alcohol can interfere with the brain’s ability to form new memories. Normally, whenever you have an experience — like a conversation — a part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex stores that information in short-term memory. Then another part of your brain called the hippocampus weaves those experiences together, so they can be stored away as long-term memories.
But here’s the thing: storing those episodes in long-term memory requires special neurotransmitters called NMDA (aka the glutamate receptor) and GABA, but your liquor shots prevent neurotransmitters from working properly, and instead of remembering a party, all you have is an incomplete or even empty file. In these types of amnesia, you cannot form new memories, but previous memories are not erased.
Types of Blackouts
There are two types of blackouts — partial and complete — and they are defined by the severity of the memory impairment. The most common type is called a ‘fragmentary blackout’ and is characterized by spotty memories for events, with ‘islands’ of memories separated by missing periods of time in between. This type is sometimes referred to as a grayout or a brownout. If you experience a grayout, visual or verbal cues may help you remember forgotten events, though sometimes, they’re best forgotten.
If you have a complete blackout, memory loss is permanent. Even with cues, you’re unlikely to remember what happened during this time. Complete amnesia, often spanning hours, is known as an ‘en bloc’ blackout. With this severe form of blackout, memories of events do not form and typically cannot be recovered. It is as if the events simply never occurred.
Importantly, it is the amount of alcohol in your system at the time that influences how much you remember.
POV: you’ve had a couple of drinks. The night is young. Your BAC, which is the concentration of alcohol in blood measured as mass per volume, increases to around 0.2%. If a person has a BAC of 0.08%, for example, it means they have 0.02 grams of alcohol per 100 grams of their blood. And the average human body contains about 5,000 grams of blood.
But let’s go back to the bar. Your brain is still able to store some memories, so you end up with clusters of memories alternating with moments of blissful oblivion. One typically blacks out when their BAC reaches 0.15%, which is nearly twice the legal limit for driving in most states.
You move to another bar. You used our advice and followed our mocktail map directions to keep imbibing safely until what you consumed so far wears off. But something went wrong, and one of your friends just bought a round of mysterious purple shots. You obediently pound back a few, which raised your BAC to around 0.3%. Your hippocampus goes dark, and full amnesia sets in. This is the notorious en bloc blackout. The scariest part is that you are actually awake, meaning you are actively doing something, but once you wake up, your entire night could be erased. This typically occurs after four drinks for women and five drinks for men, consumed within about two hours.
Blackouts vs Passing Out
Some people confuse blackouts with a loss of consciousness; however, they are not the same. When you experience a blackout, your friends might not even realize you’re in the middle of it, as you can still carry a conversation and be your regular tipsy self. That’s because the long-term memories of what happened before the night began are already safe in storage, and alcohol didn’t delete them.
‘Passing out,’ on the other hand, means either falling asleep or losing consciousness from drinking too much. Depending on how much the person drank, it is possible to transition from having a blackout to passing out.
Factors increasing the likelihood of blacking out
If you wonder why you black out even if you drink easily, there can be a few answers. Not everyone gets blackouts, and similarly to predisposition to being a lightweight, genetics is one of the factors. Your family history as well as your sex and body weight all play a role. That might explain why your friends recall the entire night despite downing just as much tequila. Females, for example, on average, weigh less than males and, pound for pound, have less water in their bodies, so they tend to reach higher peak BAC levels than males with each drink and do so more quickly.
However, there are also more universal factors at play:
- The rate at which alcohol is absorbed definitely affects its effect on the mind/body: for example, memory loss is much more strongly associated with sudden rises of BAC, rather than BAC just being high, i.e. you can blow the same value on a breathalyzer on two different nights, but if you get to that value quicker, you're more likely to have memory loss.
- Blackouts can also occur at much lower BACs in people who drink and take sleep and anti-anxiety medications. If anxiety happens to be your archnemesis, we have a drinkable weapon for you to fight it off. The Prickly Paloma Parch cocktail blend is finished off with select active adaptogens, ashwagandha, ginseng, GABA, and L-Theanine that will help ease anxiety and stress, improve immunity, and inspire a wakeful sense of calm.
How to prevent blackouts
All the rules from our blog on how not to get drunk quickly apply:
Take a Nap
Yes, if there’s a very drunk night out on the horizon, taking a nap should be your pregame. It will lessen the sedative effect alcohol has on your system and help you stay sober a little longer.
Drink water (or NA cocktails) in between alcoholic beverages. Alcohol is absorbed by the body at different rates depending on (amongst other things) the ABV of your stomach contents, so if you drink a glass of water for every alcoholic drink, that's going to dilute things, helping to slow inebriation down.
Active dry yeast, commonly used as a leavening agent in baking, contains a group of enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases (ADH). ADH, which is found naturally in humans and other animals, assists in the breakdown of alcohols that would otherwise be toxic to the body.
While we wouldn’t recommend making yeast your go-to pregame meal, in certain cases, it can be the lesser evil. Since active dry yeast contains ADH, if we consume it before drinking, the enzyme will be able to attack the alcohol in the stomach first—before it gets into the bloodstream and ultimately the liver. Mix the yeast with some yogurt and eat it before you start downing drinks.
Bring supplements like borage oil, sunflower lecithin, pantethine or any other oily pill that can envelop the walls of the stomach and prevent alcohol from absorption and just take it after your first drink.
Choose your poison wisely
If hard seltzer is your hard limit, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But don’t rely on ABV only. Perhaps, you do the math and decide to go with wine, as it only has around 13% ABV and is supposed to be three times lighter than rum or vodka which both stand at 40% ABV, however, wine can turn you into a complete wreck much faster than its stronger counterparts. Turns out, there is a “sweet spot” when it comes to alcohol content, and wine rests soundly in that region. At around 10–13%, consuming such beverages, especially the more aromatic, refreshing and possibly non-dry wines tend to be what is called in Greek “sweet-to-drink” (γλυκόπιοτα), what an American speaker might call “smooth.” They are delightful to down, and being so pleasant to down means it’s easier to drink rapidly. And as alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream faster, you will most likely feel drunker.
If none of the above seems to work and you’re already seeing double, make sure to have a few activated charcoal pills with you – they’ll absorb excessive alcohol toxins and negate the effect which that third Negroni’s had on your body.
This may seem obvious, but try to not drink at all or at least moderate your drinking. Alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails when you go out next time and obviously shop Boisson! We highlighted the best NA drinks in each category to ensure you can skip the booze and still enjoy the night. Those NA options will satisfy your alcohol cravings of any kind, as we have excellent options for wine, beer, liquors, and even pre-made cocktails right at your fingertips. Just scroll to find what’s right for you, and rest assured – we’ll prevent all your blackouts, lightweight issues, and other ‘pleasant surprises’ drinking alcohol might entail.