Diabetes is one of the most common diseases in the United States, impacting around 10% of Americans. Alcohol use is also very common, with almost 86% of Americans stating they have had alcohol at some point in the past and nearly 55% having had alcohol over the past month. People who have diabetes may have the desire to drink alcohol, just like anyone else. However, drinking alcohol can have an impact on diabetes, so it’s important to be careful when drinking if you have a diabetes diagnosis.
Article at a Glance:
- Diabetes is a common condition in which blood sugar levels may be uncontrolled.
- Alcohol can cause wide swings in blood sugar and may cause both high and low blood sugar readings.
- If you have diabetes and want to drink alcohol, there are strategies you can use to drink more safely, such as regularly checking your blood sugar.
- Heavy drinking is a risk factor for developing diabetes.
Table of Contents
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a condition in which your body has trouble processing food the way it should to use it as energy. When we digest food, it breaks down into sugar, or glucose, that our cells can use for energy. A small organ called the pancreas is responsible for making insulin, a hormone that gets glucose into our body’s cells.
If you have diabetes, your body either can’t make enough insulin to function properly or can’t use insulin the right way. When this happens, your body’s cells are starved of their energy source. Instead, glucose builds up in your blood, raising your blood sugar levels.
Diabetes is manageable, but it can lead to serious complications, including kidney failure, cardiovascular disease and blindness. It’s also one of the top causes of death in the U.S. Diabetes is divided into Type 1 and Type 2 forms, which differ.
- Type 1 Diabetes:
Type 1 diabetes, which used to be called insulin-dependent or juvenile diabetes mellitus, makes up 5–10% of diabetes cases in the U.S and is often diagnosed in childhood. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which your immune system attacks your pancreas’ beta cells, which produce insulin. When the beta cells die, you can no longer make insulin. Taking insulin is generally required to manage Type 1 diabetes.
- Type 2 Diabetes:
Type 2 diabetes is much more common among diabetics in the U.S., making up anywhere from 90–95% of all cases. Although Type 2 diabetes was formerly known as adult-onset diabetes, it is increasingly common in children and adolescents and is now more commonly called Type 2 diabetes.
Risk factors for Type 2 diabetes include:
- A diagnosis of prediabetes
- Being overweight
- Being age 45 years or older
- Having a parent, brother or sister with the condition
- Physical activity fewer than three times a week
- A history of diabetes during pregnancy or having a baby who weighed more than nine pounds at birth
- Being African American, Hispanic/Latino American, American Indian or Alaska Native
- Excessive alcohol intake
The treatments for Type 2 diabetes often emphasize lifestyle changes, such as changing your diet and exercising. In some people with Type 2 diabetes, medications may be necessary.
The Connection Between Alcohol & Blood Sugar
When you have diabetes, it is important to carefully monitor your blood sugar levels as directed by your doctor. Blood sugar can swing from too high to too low in diabetics. Blood sugar that is too high is called hyperglycemia, while blood sugar that drops too low is called hypoglycemia. Although your doctor will tell you what your specific blood sugar goal range is, generally, a target blood sugar range is 80 to 130 mg/dL if you are testing your sugar on an empty stomach.
Alcohol can impact blood sugar in different ways and may cause hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia. For the most part, alcohol’s impact on blood sugar depends on whether you drink on a full stomach or an empty stomach.
- Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach or several hours after a meal can cause low blood sugar.
- Drinking three to four drinks a day can cause high blood sugar, especially if you eat regular meals.
- Drinking sparingly with meals may not have much of an impact on your blood sugar.
Can Diabetics Drink Alcohol?
If you have diabetes and wonder if you can drink alcohol, you’ll be happy to know that many diabetics can — but only if they do so in moderation, limited to one or two drinks. Your doctor can give you more specific information on whether it’s safe for you to drink and how much you can drink. If your doctor determines that you can safely consume alcohol, it’s vital to always consider the potential risks.
What Are the Risks of Drinking Alcohol as a Diabetic?
Drinking can impact the health of someone with diabetes in several different ways. It’s important to be aware of the potential impact of alcohol on your health if you have diabetes, as well as strategies to keep yourself safe during and after drinking.
- Alcohol can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar): Large amounts of alcohol can cause blood glucose levels to fall, resulting in hypoglycemia, especially if you drink on an empty stomach. This may last up to 24 hours after drinking, so always check your blood sugar level before and after drinking alcohol to make sure it’s where it should be.
- Alcohol can cause hyperglycemia (high blood sugar): If you drink excessively, particularly if you eat regular meals, drinking may cause your blood sugar to increase. This is especially true if you consume alcoholic beverages that contain high amounts of sugar, like liqueurs and mixed drinks.
- Alcohol can interfere with medications: Both alcohol and certain diabetes medications like insulin can cause blood glucose levels to drop. Therefore, combining these substances increases the risk of hypoglycemia.
- Alcohol interferes with liver function: When you consume alcohol, most of it is metabolized in the liver. This prevents the liver from effectively regulating blood sugar, which is why it’s so critical to check your sugar before having a drink. Drinking alcohol when your blood glucose is low can be very dangerous.
- Alcohol can be dehydrating: It is easy to become dehydrated when you have diabetes because high blood sugar increases your urine output. Because alcohol is also dehydrating, drinking when you have diabetes can further increase your chances of dehydration.
How Can Diabetics Drink Alcohol Responsibly?
Some would argue that the most responsible way to consume alcohol as a diabetic is to not consume any at all, but for others, alcohol is a staple in social settings. If you have diabetes and your doctor has determined you can drink, these tips can help you stay safe while consuming alcohol:
- Know your limits: Do not consume more than one serving of alcohol per day if you’re a woman and no more than two per day if you’re a man.
- Know the symptoms of hypoglycemia: Make sure your friends and loved ones know them as well. Symptoms include dizziness, confusion, weakness, pale skin and sweating. Make sure to have an action plan if your blood sugar drops too low, such as drinking sugary soda to help increase your blood sugar levels.
- Test, test, test: Get in the habit of testing your blood glucose level more often than usual since alcohol can cause it to rise or fall. If you do have diabetes and you’re concerned with alcohol and blood sugar interactions, you should plan on checking your levels both before and after drinking. It’s also important to check levels before going to bed to make sure that you don’t enter a period of hypoglycemia while you’re asleep.
- ID, please: Always wear your diabetes ID bracelet so that those around you will know of your condition if you need medical attention.
- Check the carbs: Some alcoholic beverages have more carbohydrates than others, so it’s important to always read your beverages’ label before deciding on a certain drink.
Can Alcohol Cause Diabetes?
Alcohol might not cause diabetes on its own, but it can play a role. The role alcohol plays in developing diabetes is controversial, and studies have had inconsistent conclusions on the topic. Some data have shown that modest amounts of alcohol may lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes, while high amounts of alcohol may increase the risk. However, experts think that alcohol may have several ways of contributing to the development of Type 2 diabetes, including:
- Predisposing a person to take in excess calories
- Predisposing a person to obesity
- Causing problems with the pancreas, like pancreatitis
- Changing how the body reacts to carbohydrates and glucose metabolism to make it less sensitive to insulin
- Impairment of the liver
It’s important to note alcoholism is just one of many risk factors for diabetes. While it can certainly contribute to your risk, drinking alcohol excessively does not ensure a future diabetes diagnosis.
Know the Risks
If you are struggling to control your alcohol intake despite making it harder to manage your diabetes, you may be at risk for alcohol addiction. Thankfully, you are not alone. Our addiction experts at The Recovery Village can help you break free from alcohol, leading to a healthier life and possibly better-controlled diabetes. Contact us today to learn about treatment programs that can help.
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