Category: Health & Fitness
Published on Friday, 26 June 2015 00:00
Written by Cheryl Teo Kai Lin
People who are guilty in partaking in a little bit of binge-drinking every now and then are familiar with hearing horror stories of what went on when they were drunk. For some reason, after having too much to drink, some of us enter a state of oblivion where although we are conscious and functioning, we can't remember the usually embarrassing things we did.
What contributes to the horror in the mysteries left after a night smudged dark by overdrinking? Blackouts were once thought to affect only alcoholics. So people naturally assumed that if you blackout from drinking, you are basically an alcoholic.
For that we have E.M. Jellinek to thank—the “father of the modern disease model of alcoholism,” according to Aaron White, the senior advisor to the director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). In a survey of Alcoholics Anonymous members, Jellinek found that many reported having frequently blacked out, and a link between blackouts and alcoholism became entrenched. Wrongly so, White says.
Blackouts are commonly seen in alcoholics, in part because people can build up a tolerance to some of the other negative consequences of alcohol—loss of balance, for instance—but not so much to its effects on memory. Still, White says, “anyone can black out at least once, if you drink in the right way—or the wrong way.”
He conducted a survey at Duke University here 51 percent of students admitted to having at least one blackout when they consumed alcohol. But there have been no comprehensive population surveys on how common they are. “Blackouts have basically been ignored as a subject of study,” White says. “We don’t have any national data.”
A blackout can be defined as the total erasure of an entire chunk of time from a person's memory, an occurrence known as an en bloc blackout. Or they might just forget bits and pieces, in a fragmentary blackout, or a brownout, as some call it. White says that the latter is more common. Either way, the memories are gone because they were never stored in the first place.
Even during a blackout, a drinker's short-term memory is generally fine. They can keep a conversation going, though they mught quickly forget things they've said and repeat themselves. It's episodic memory where alcohol gums up the works. These are the memories of events – what happened, where it happened, when, and with whom.
Alcohol impairs the encoding of these contextual memories, which happens in the hippocampus. “Your brain is sending information to the hippocampus, and it falls into a void,” White says. “The hippocampus doesn’t tie it together, or it skips a little bit.”
After a fragmentary blackout, being reminded of some of that context might bring a flood of memories back to someone's mind. However, after an en bloc blackout, one will need to rely on the memory of others.
How quickly one’s blood alcohol content rises is the biggest risk factor for a blackout. That means things that make you drunker faster—drinking liquor or drinking on an empty stomach—make you more likely to black out.
You’re also more likely to black out if you’re a woman. Sorry ladies, I know many of us in the 21st Century believe in equality between the sexes but when it comes to drinking, females tend to black out faster. You can't mess with biology. Even if a man and a woman of similar size matched each other shot for shot, the woman would be more likely to black out first. Women have less alcohol dehydrogenase in their guts – an enzyme that helps break down alcohol. And they have less free-floating water in their bodies. “That means that it’s like pouring a shot into a six-ounce glass of Coke rather than a 12-ounce glass,” White says.
Share this article with your friends to educate them on the alcohol blackouts they have experienced!