Most people want to enjoy an alcoholic drink every once in a while. However, when one is diagnosed with diabetes there is a lot to consider when drinking alcohol as it can impact blood sugar levels and cause serious diabetes-related complications.
Is it safe to drink alcohol if you have diabetes?
Short answer, yes. For those with diabetes, having that drink is generally safe, however, it’s important to educate yourself on the physiological effects alcohol can have on the body.
The following article will cover the effects of alcohol on diabetes and tips you can follow to drink responsibly.
How drinking alcohol affects blood sugar
The liver plays a key role in managing blood glucose levels in the body as it converts glycogen (a form of stored glucose) into glucose that is slowly released into the bloodstream throughout the day.
The increase in blood sugar levels caused by the liver is why those with type 1 diabetes must inject insulin every day in order to avoid spikes in blood sugar levels.
When we consume alcohol, the livers’ ability to release glucose is affected. While the liver is busy processing the alcohol consumed, the release of glucose is almost halted.
For those with diabetes, this can become dangerous since the combination of insulin medication and a drop in blood sugar levels can lead to diabetes complications such as hypoglycemia.
Furthermore, if you’ve just had a meal, alcohol can slow down digestion. The insulin you may have taken prior to a meal has not taken effect and your food still hasn’t been broken down into glucose.
For this reason, drinking alcohol can come with serious consequences for those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, especially if you are on diabetes medications such as insulin.
Hypoglycemia caused by Alcohol Consumption
Hypoglycemia (or hypo for short) is caused when blood sugar (glucose) levels are lower than normal.
Since glucose is the body’s main source of energy, this drop in blood sugar can begin to show up as symptoms such as drowsiness, mental confusion, shakiness, sweating, hunger, slurred speech, irritability, or more serious complications such as unconsciousness or seizures if levels are dangerously low.
Diabetics should be aware of the possible side effects related to alcohol-induced hypoglycemia, be mindful of how much alcohol is being consumed and take the necessary precautions prior when ingesting alcohol.
Have a glucagon kit readily available
Your doctor may suggest getting an emergency glucagon kit in the event of severe hypoglycemia.
A glucagon kit is an effective treatment that can kickstart your liver into releasing stored glycogen in the event your liver is too busy processing alcohol. You should note that even with emergency glucagon kits, this fail-safe is not always 100% effective especially if you’ve consumed a substantial amount of alcohol and the liver is being overworked.
Contrary to alcohol causing low blood sugar, some drinks can have the opposite effect since they contain high amounts of sugar. Drinks such as rum & cokes, sweet wines, margaritas, and mojitos all contain high levels of sugar.
High blood sugar (hyperglycemia) can affect those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes when blood levels surpass 160 mg/dL according to the Joslin Diabetes Center.
Symptoms of hyperglycemia include increased thirst, tiredness, increased urination, and in severe circumstances, diabetic ketoacidosis where individuals will experience confusion, vomiting/nausea, or coma. Since it’s possible to experience DKA during normal glucose levels it’s suggested to check for ketones.
Keep in mind that while alcohol itself will not raise blood sugar since it contains zero carbs, it is usually mixed with sugary drinks.
How alcohol can negatively impact diabetes
- Alcohol can increase hunger, causing you to overeat which can affect blood sugar levels
- Alcohol can cause drastic spikes or drops in blood sugar levels
- Since alcohol can hinder judgment it may result in poor food choices
- Alcohol can increase blood pressure
- Alcohol can increase triglyceride levels
- Alcohol can lead to weight gain since it is high in calories
- Sweet wine and beer can cause blood sugar spikes since they are high in carbohydrates
- Can interfere with oral diabetes medications
Dos and Don’t of Alcohol Consumption for those with Diabetes
1. Do not drink more than one or two drinks in one sitting. Keep track of how much you drink and pay attention to the type of alcoholic drinks you consume.
2. Always consume food before drinking alcohol. Slow acting carbs can help your body process alcohol more effectively.
3. Avoid sugary or mixed drinks.
4. Wear a medical bracelet or ID that indicates you are diabetic.
5. Talk to your doctor if you should drink alcohol and safety instructions. Especially if you are insulin dependent as your doctor may adjust your dosage for drinking. Be honest with your doctor about your drinking habits.
6. Heightened risk of complications. If you drink alcohol and have type 1 or type 2 diabetes then you put yourself at risk for complications to the nerve, liver, heart and kidneys.
7. Let your friends and family know what to do in case you experience symptoms related to alcohol-diabetes related complications.
8. Be prepared. Bring a blood testing kit, snack, glucose tablets in case of hypoglycemia. Keep in mind that glucagon might not always help in the event of hypoglycemia.
9. Check your blood sugar. Test your blood sugar levels before drinking to ensure they are not low. Do not drink before bed as you can experience side effects while sleeping.
10. Mix liquor with club soda, water or diet soft drinks.
It’s generally safe for those with diabetes to have the occasional drink. Since alcohol can impact blood sugar levels and potentially lead to diabetes-related complications, it’s wise to understand how to drink responsibly.
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) can both result from alcohol consumption and the types of drinks.
Side effects can be avoided if the drinker understands best practices and is always prepared for any complications such as carrying glucose tabs.
It’s always best to remain cautious, follow consumption limits and eat carbohydrates before drinking.
Even when following best practices, diabetics may still be susceptible to alcohol-related side effects so please drink with caution.