Why are women more prone to alcohol-related blackouts than men?

I have had more blackouts than I can count. For me, blackouts were the ugly, scary result of “too much fun.” The irony is that too much fun led to shame, regret, and grief — an aching sadness over significant periods of time “lost” with no means of recollection.

Many of my clients come to me with similar experiences. Blackouts are listed as one of the worst negative consequences of their drinking. For many women I work with, the goal is learning how to manage their alcohol so that they can go out, drink, have a great time and remember every second of it.

Blackouts seem to start at a blood alcohol content of around .20, and women often reach that level quicker than men, which means that we are more prone to blackouts. Why does this happen?

A lot of it comes down to biology. We have less alcohol dehydrogenase in our guts—an enzyme that helps break down alcohol. The effect: a woman will likely absorb about 30% more alcohol into her bloodstream than a man of the same weight who has consumed an equal amount. We also have less free-floating water in our bodies than men do, and since alcohol disperses in body water, we maintain a higher concentration for longer. Simply put, if you are going shot for shot with a dude at the bar, you are going to get drunker faster, and be much more likely to blackout.

The Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse describes low-risk drinking as no more than three drinks a night for women, and four drinks a night for men. I used to think this was “crazy low” — something concocted by the fun police rather than put in place to provide sound health recommendations. The more I researched, I also realized the guidelines are not meant to oppress women and take away our freedom to drink as much as men. As Drinkaware.co.uk writes, “It may sound a bit sexist, but it’s simple biology.”

While it’s hard to know the exact number of women who suffer blackouts because so many go unreported, recent studies of college students show that 1 in 4 students who drink alcohol have experienced a blackout.

With so many of us dealing secretly with the shame of a blackout, we often lack solutions when the only one presented is a loud “if you have problems with alcohol, then you shouldn’t drink at all.”

Is it possible to continue to drink alcohol and to learn how to avoid blackouts? Of course it is! In my next post, I’ll share some of my favourite strategies.

A photo of Caitlin Padgett

Caitlin Padgett has been working for over twelve years in peer and community-based HIV/AIDS, harm reduction, public health, and human rights programs. She is the cofounder of Youth RISE, an international youth-led network.

She has worked in over 15 countries, including Cambodia and Southeast Asia, devoting herself to HIV/AIDS, drug policy, and human rights initiatives. She is also regularly invited to speak at meetings within United Nations agencies, international organizations, and conferences.

Padgett received her diploma in child and youth care counseling from Douglas College and has a BA in interdisciplinary humanities and psychology from the New College of California. She has studied film and video production at Langara College, the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and the Gulf Islands Film and Television School. After receiving her Holistic Health Coach certification through The Institute for Integrative Nutrition, she is establishing a holistic health coaching practice that specializes in working with women who struggle with alcohol. She is the author of Drink Less Be More: How to have a great night (and life) without getting wasted.

To learn more about Caitlin and her work, please visit her website www.caitlinpadgett.com

 **Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC


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