If you have diabetes, you may be wondering if alcohol is off-limits or maybe you’re just curious about how alcohol can affect diabetes. In this article, we will answer all of your questions about alcohol and diabetes. We’ll cover everything from what diabetes is to how drinking alcohol can impact your blood sugar levels.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes, also called diabetes mellitus, is a group of diseases that result in high levels of blood sugar, or glucose. Your body needs glucose for energy and in order for your cells to process glucose, they need the hormone insulin. When your body stops making insulin or responding to it, then your blood has elevated glucose levels and too much glucose in your blood can damage your organs and cause problems. If left untreated diabetes can lead to eye damage, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and many other complications. The three most common types of diabetes are type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes. Genetic factors and environmental factors may be causes for diabetes, although sometimes the cause is unknown. There are also rarer forms of the disease that are called monogenic diabetes, which is diabetes caused by a mutation to a single gene. As of 2019, 37.3 million Americans had diabetes which is roughly 11.3% of the population.
What are the symptoms of diabetes?
The symptoms of diabetes can differ depending on how long you have had the disease and what type of diabetes you have. The most common symptoms for all forms of diabetes are increased thirst, frequent urination, extreme hunger, weight loss even despite eating more, fatigue, blurry vision, and frequent infections. With type 1 diabetes, symptoms can develop quickly over a few weeks and be severe. People with type 2 diabetes might not have any symptoms or the symptoms can be very mild so you might not even notice them although they can get worse if left untreated. Gestational diabetes usually has no symptoms or mild symptoms and normally goes away after the birth of the baby.
What happens to your body when you drink alcohol?
All alcohol is metabolized in your liver and most of it is converted into a substance called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is then further broken down and eliminated from your body. However, alcohol can damage your liver cells and prevent them from working properly which can lead to a build up of toxins including acetaldehyde in your blood. This build up of toxins can make you feel ill. Alcohol also dehydrates your body and can cause your blood sugar levels to drop. If you have diabetes, drinking alcohol can make it difficult to control your blood sugar levels and can increase your risk of complications such as the development of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).
How can drinking alcohol affect your diabetes?
Drinking alcohol can cause your blood sugar levels to go up or down depending on how much alcohol you drink, what type of alcohol you drink, and if you are taking any medications for your diabetes. Moderate alcohol intake may cause an increase in blood sugar; however, drinking in excess can cause low blood sugar. The most common concern of drinking alcohol with diabetes involves mixing it while taking some diabetes medications, especially insulin and sulfonylureas, which can cause hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. This is due to your liver prioritizing breaking down the alcohol in your body over releasing any stored carbohydrates which can maintain a healthy range for your blood sugar. What makes this particularly dangerous is that many of the symptoms of hypoglycemia are similar to the effects of alcohol, including slurred speech and confusion, so it is hard to differentiate between the two.
Alcoholic drinks such as port wine, sugary drinks, and beer can also be packed with carbohydrates. This is not a good thing as your body doesn’t process these carbs the same way as it would with food and they get quickly broken down and processed by your body. This can lead to low blood sugar levels later on when you need the stored carbs and also cause weight gain, which is a risk factor for some forms of diabetes.
These are not the only negative effects of drinking alcohol while having diabetes. Others include:
- Overeating due to being hungry while drinking or lack of good judgment
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Elevated triglyceride levels, these are used to store unused calories and can also provide energy
- Vomiting and nausea
If you have diabetes, it is important to talk to your doctor about how alcohol can affect your diabetes and what is a safe amount for you to drink, if any.
Is there any benefit to drinking alcohol with diabetes?
There is some evidence that moderate drinking might help protect against type 2 diabetes or have beneficial effects for healthy people, however, the research is not definitive. If you have diabetes, it is important to talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of alcohol consumption. Do not start drinking alcohol to provide these unproven benefits.
How can I manage drinking alcohol with diabetes?
If you have diabetes and want to drink alcohol, there are some things you can do to help manage your diabetes and stay safe.
- Check your blood sugar levels before and after drinking alcohol
- Eat food before and while drinking alcohol to help slow its absorption
- Choose alcohol that has a lower carbohydrate content like dry wine or liquor
- Avoid sugary drinks, mixers, and sweet wines like port
- Read labels and check the alcohol content in the liquor you are drinking
- Limit your consumption to no more than one drink of alcohol per day for women and two drinks per day for men (please note that portion sizes and amounts of alcohol may vary for different types of drinks, for example, 5 ounces of wine is a normal pour for a glass of wine while a 12-ounce beer is a normal serving for beer)
- Drink slowly
- Mix liquor with club soda, diet sodas, or water to avoid empty calories and carbohydrates
- Have a plan to treat low blood sugar if it happens
- Make sure you are taking your diabetes medications as prescribed by your doctor
If you have diabetes, drinking alcohol can be dangerous and should be done with caution and under the guidance of your health care team. Please remember to always check with your doctor before starting or changing any alcohol consumption habits. Please note that if you are a heavy drinker, have a drinking problem, and have diabetes, alcohol can make your diabetes worse. It is important to get help for alcohol abuse or alcoholism if you have diabetes.
Diabetes is a chronic disease that causes you to have high blood glucose levels which can lead to a number of different medical problems. If you have diabetes, alcohol can be dangerous and should be consumed with caution and under the guidance of your health care team. Although alcohol in moderation is said to provide benefits, these claims are largely unproven. When drinking alcohol with diabetes, remember to check your blood sugar levels, eat food, and drink slowly as well as follow the other precautions listed above. Avoid sugary mixers and drinks and limit alcohol consumption to moderate amounts, no more than one or two drinks per day. If you enjoy heavy drinking, have a drinking problem, and have diabetes, alcohol can make your diabetes worse so it is important to get help for alcohol abuse or alcoholism. If you have any more questions please talk to your doctor or health care provider.
References and Sources:
American Diabetes Association
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Diabetic.org is devoted to producing expert and accurate articles and information for our readers by hiring experts, journalists, medical professionals, and our growing Diabetic.org community. We encourage you to read more about our content, editing, and fact checking methods here. This was fact checked by Erik Rivera and medically reviewed by Dr. Angel Rivera.
Owner, entrepreneur, and consumer health enthusiast.