How Alcohol Affects Diabetes

August 05,2021 |
Man drinking wine with his father

There are many misconceptions about diabetes and alcohol. The first thing you need to know is that it's not one size fits all when it comes to drinking while living with diabetes. While alcohol can cause changes to your blood sugar, it doesn’t mean that you can’t indulge once in a while. However, always check with your doctor before doing so as individual circumstances can vary drastically and your diabetes may require more stringent management. If you do decide to drink, make sure that you know how alcohol affects diabetes and be prepared for anything that could happen as a result.

The Effect of Alcohol on People Living with Diabetes

Due to the nature of how alcohol is processed and its effect on your body, drinking when you have diabetes can worsen many of the complications associated with the condition. Diabetes already has a huge impact on your body and alcohol increases complications. Alcohol can cause changes in blood sugar, interacts with diabetes medications, reduces liver function, increases your risk of hypoglycemia, and severely impacts your long-term health.

  1. Alcohol Can Cause Changes in Blood Sugar

    Alcohol has the potential to cause a surge in blood sugar levels because of how it affects glucose, which is a type of sugar that your body uses for fuel. Alcohol slows down the metabolism and can break down in as little as five minutes after being consumed. This causes an increase in the amount of insulin—a hormone that helps control blood sugar.

    Having a few drinks can cause your blood sugar to rise, but excessive consumption can cause severe and dangerous decreases in blood sugar. If you're going to indulge in a drink or two, make sure that you test your blood sugar levels before, during, and after. Keep in mind that depending on how many drinks you consume alcohol can continue affecting your blood sugar for up to 12 hours.


  2. Alcohol Interacts with Diabetes Medications

    Since people living with diabetes rely on insulin to properly manage their blood sugar levels, they need to be particularly careful with alcohol consumption. Alcohol can cause changes in your blood sugar, which may change how often or when you administer insulin. Some people utilize diabetes pills in addition to insulin, which can further lower blood glucose levels. This causes added strain on the pancreas. When the effects of these types of medications are combined with alcohol consumption, it can put you at a higher risk for hypoglycemia.

    If you take insulin, consult with a medical professional about how to safely handle the two at once. Make sure they know all of the medications that you're taking as well as what your daily schedule looks like.


  3. Alcohol Reduces Liver Function

    When you’re not drinking, your liver’s primary role is to store glycogen so that you have a source of glucose during periods of time between eating. This helps regulate your blood sugar and stabilizes levels throughout the day. Since the primary problem in people living with diabetes is making sure that blood sugar levels remain stable, alcohol consumption is problematic.

    When you drink, your liver is unable to do its job and can result in even lower blood sugar levels. Alcohol is processed by your liver through a metabolization process using liver cells. Alcohol is first broken down into acetaldehyde and then another enzyme further breaks it down into acetate. When you consume alcohol, your liver is primarily focused on this breakdown.

    The pancreas also has an important role in regulating blood sugar. Chronic alcohol use can lead to issues with both your liver and pancreas functioning.


  4. Alcohol Can Cause Hypoglycemia

    Hypoglycemia is an extremely dangerous condition that occurs when your blood sugar levels are lower than 70 mg/dL. When left untreated, it can be life threatening. When you drink alcohol, your liver is unable to store glycogen, which can lead to a drop in blood sugar. If you consume high levels of alcohol without eating, there are fewer carbs for your body to use for energy production. This increases the chance that your body can go into hypoglycemic shock. This can result in nausea, vomiting, sweating, and confusion. If not treated, it could result in seizures, a coma, or even death.

    If you notice any signs of hypoglycemia, swift treatment is essential. Eat about 15 to 20 grams of fast-acting carbohydrates so you can quickly increase your blood sugar levels. If you begin to feel confused and cannot keep food down, seek medical treatment immediately.

    One of the most dangerous aspects of hypoglycemia is that it mimics symptoms of being intoxicated. Hypoglycemia may show symptoms of confusion, weakness, blurred vision, fainting, slow heart rates, and unusual behavior. This makes it extremely hard to identify if you’re drinking and are not aware of the symptoms. If your blood sugar levels drop too low, your body could be taken over by hypoglycemia and become severely ill. If left untreated, this can progress into diabetic ketoacidosis. This is a very serious state when your blood glucose drops below 40 mg/dL and requires immediate medical care.


  5. Alcohol Affects Your Long-Term Health

Over time, the excessive consumption of alcohol can contribute to several different problems and conditions. It can increase your risk for developing chronic diseases and serious problems that can make managing diabetes increasingly difficult. Some long-term health risks include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, digestive problems, and a variety of different cancers. Talk to your doctor to better understand your risk factors and always drink in moderation. Boosting your longevity when living with diabetes is essential to your long-term health.

If you are going to drink, be aware of the drinks you're selecting. Not all alcoholic beverages contain equal amounts of alcohol. For instance, beer and wine are typically lower in alcohol content than hard liquor such as whiskey or vodka. Remember to assess your options before making your decision on what type of drink to order.

Some Advice for Alcohol Consumption if You’re Living with Diabetes

If you are going to drink, there are certain things that you should take into consideration. First and foremost, drink only in moderation. Limit yourself to only one drink per day if you’re a woman and two drinks per day if you’re a man. Only consume alcohol with food and drink slowly over the course of your meal. Avoid ordering excessively sugary drinks or wines to reduce the impact on your blood sugar and dilute hard liquor with water, club soda, or diet soft drinks. If you have any questions about alcohol consumption in conjunction with any medications you’re currently taking, talk to your doctor.

Before consuming any alcohol, always make sure that your diabetes is in good control and your blood sugar is being properly managed. Make sure that you have spoken with your doctor, and you fully understand the risks of drinking alcohol with diabetes. Avoid consuming alcohol as a response to stress, as diabetes is already impacted by cortisol and anxiety.

When to Avoid Alcohol

Consuming one drink at a party or while you’re out to eat is fine as long as you continue to monitor your blood glucose levels. However, if you already have long term problems or complications that have developed from diabetes, it may be best to avoid alcohol altogether. This is especially true if you suffer from diabetic neuropathy, diabetic retinopathy, high blood pressure, high levels of triglycerides, kidney damage, and more. Drinking can cause harmful interactions with medications that are needed to manage these conditions and can further increase your blood pressure. Always talk to your doctor about the effects of alcohol and any chronic conditions that you currently have.

If you have a history of alcohol abuse or drug abuse, avoid alcohol and speak with someone about finding a support system to help.

Alcohol Consumption and Heart Health

There is some evidence that shows that moderate drinking can actually provide you with cardiovascular benefits. This means people who only have one, properly measured, drink per day. This can be problematic as it becomes a slippery slope, and one drink can easily turn into two. Since your risk for developing heart disease doubles if you’re living with diabetes, you need to be particularly careful with alcohol. Too much drinking can increase blood sugar levels and your A1C, which contributes to increased risk of developing heart disease or stroke.

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