Black out: Pushing your body to the limits

Why do you drink alcohol?

This is probably one of the most morally challenging questions for college students to answer. Not every excessive drinker is fully aware of how damaging the short-term and long-term effects can be on their body. Especially when they see black and can't remember anything the next day.

At anywhere between a .20 to a .30 blood alcohol content level, when normal functions of the brain and body have reached the point just before completely shutting down, you have "blacked out."

"Essentially, in the presence of alcohol [GABA and NDMA receptors in the brain] aren't able to function normally, which results in varying degrees of cognitive effects and memory impairments," psychology senior Jacob Anderson says. Anderson is also a certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT.) "At high levels of blood alcohol content, these receptors and the hippocampus of your brain are basically fighting to remain functioning."

So, it is no surprise that memory loss is one of the most significant effects of blacking out when drinking. According to Anderson, the stress that alcohol puts on the receptors in the brain interferes with the brain's ability to form new memories. It allows them to still act, but prohibits them from remembering anything.

"This memory loss isn't because they 'forget,' it's because the memories weren't formed in the first place," Anderson says.

From a personal standpoint, the experiences that exercise and wellness senior Ben Holko can remember from blacking out just two times were not pleasant.

"The symptoms that I had I didn't fully realize till the end of the night... I noticed I had less control of my hands and my speech. It was hard to walk at some points and it was harder to stay awake," Holko says.

According to Holko, he was only blacked out for about 15 minutes before he fell asleep, and up until the point of laying down he was "somewhat functional." However, the next morning revealed to him the physiological effects of that high level of blood alcohol content.

"The next morning was awful. I woke up and felt sick at 10 a.m. and the last time I threw up, and consequentially felt better, was at 7 p.m. I had a small headache and my stomach was in pain," Holko says. "I had this constant feeling that I wanted to throw up and I did about four to five times throughout the day."

Although he was having fun and was unaware of how much alcohol he was actually consuming, blacking out made Holko change the way he goes about drinking from now on. He still enjoys going out and drinking with company, but he now knows his limits. The fun vanishes when you get too intoxicated.IMG_3885

"It is also dangerous to be in that situation," Holko says. "One could eventually get alcohol poisoning or get in serious trouble if you are with people who won't take care of you."

But what about the people who you trust to have your back? Marketing junior Jenn Cardoza, who has one more year until she can legally drink alcohol, has experienced some difficult situations dealing with people who have blacked out.

"I've watched a fair share of people get to the point of blacking out and it's not a fun time... they're obnoxious, loud, and have no sense of right or wrong," Cardoza says.

According to Cardoza, watching someone who continues to function while being blacked out is scary. The hardest part for her is knowing that there is nothing she can do besides making sure they at least stay safe.

"There's been instances of someone I'm trying to help getting extremely mad... they started yelling and screaming at me, saying awful things to hurt my feelings, but the next day they didn't remember saying a thing," Cardoza says.

Cardoza was shocked when she first learned about blacking out and the reason behind it. Being a bystander when people around are getting extremely drunk and blacking out makes Cardoza more conscious about her future decisions on drinking.

"I'm a pretty health-conscious person and in no way want to get to a point where I'm so intoxicated that my brain forgets how to make long-term memory," Cardoza says. "I don't think most people understand the severity of the danger in blacking out, but I do and I don't want to succumb myself to that health risk."

As for the intentions of college students who plan to drink, both Holko and Cardoza agree that it depends on the person and the situation. More experienced drinkers are more likely to know their limit, especially if they do not want to feel the physical consequences of blacking out the next day like Holko.

"It may be difficult for the inexperienced drinkers to know when they'll black out, but the rest of the population doesn't have an excuse," Cardoza said.

From a medical standpoint, there are far more potentially dangerous consequences of blacking out than just memory loss. Anderson says that secondary injury, caused by dangerous decision or accident when physically impaired, is his biggest concern when people drink in excess.

"[Secondary injuries] can result in a serious or life threatening injury to themselves or others, all without having any memory of doing so. I think some people do choose to drink in such a way that they black out," Anderson says. "But also, drinking impairs judgement, so it's very possible that they drink more than intended."

Anderson warns of the dangers of blacking out itself and other life threatening secondary injury, one of which is aspiration. Aspiration occurs when people suffocate on their own vomit or other liquids because the central nervous system's reflexes are suppressed. His best advice to anyone who witnesses another person passed out drunk, they should roll them onto their side so the risk of aspiration is greatly reduced.

"By the nature of black outs, people aren't able to realize they have reached that point because they are unable to form memories that they can later associate with that state," Anderson says. "So, they might realize in the moment that something is off, but they will most likely be unable to remember that feeling."

Reach the writer at ablight@asu.edu or on Twitter @alysse_sky.


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