Alcohol And Diabetes: The Facts

Published On 27-April-2020
By Tim Wood

It is estimated that in the UK, the number of people living with diabetes is over 4.5 million. [1] That includes presently more than 3.5 million who have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. There are also an estimated 1.1 million across the nation who are believed to have diabetes. [2]

There is much discussion about diabetes, how to prevent it, and how to manage it. But little talk remains about the effects and role of alcohol in the lives of diabetics.

In this post, we will discuss the myths and facts around alcohol and diabetes, answering your questions, and highlight some key facts to keep you safe.

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a common, lifelong condition causing a person's blood sugar level to become excessive. When you have diabetes, it means your body is not in a position to convert glucose into energy.

Note that insulin, a pancreas-made hormone, helps in getting glucose for energy production in your cells. Meaning, in the body of a diabetic, the glucose is not properly transferred to the blood cells. Thus, glucose occurs unnaturally in the bloodstream.

Understand that the risk of developing diabetes for any individual depends on not only genes but also lifestyle, environmental factors, and geography. For instance, if you are less physically active, or have adopted a poor diet for many years, the risk of developing type 2 diabetes is greater.

How Can Alcohol Affect Diabetes?

Alcohol has a depressant effect, depressing your central nervous system when consumed. This sedative-hypnotic drug affects every body organ, such as the small intestine and the stomach, when it enters your bloodstream.

Excess alcohol consumption for a person with diabetes means a greater effect on the body. When you consume alcohol, it can interfere with the blood sugar and hormones for the maintenance of appropriate levels of blood sugar.  Also, excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of type 2 diabetes (for those with type 1 diabetes) and hypo.

The Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes

The two main diabetes types are type 1 and type 2, with about 90% of adults in the UK having type 2 diabetes. [3]

Type 1 diabetes is a result of the body's immune system attacking and destroying cells engaging in the production of insulin. This can happen due to an infection or virus, which can lead to an autoimmune response or as a result of genetic factors. This type of diabetes is not only the least common but also has no methods of prevention.

Type 1 diabetes is managed by maintaining blood sugar levels through insulin injections, which requires regular monitoring of blood sugar levels. People who have type 1 diabetes can often be seen pricking their fingers, in order to get an immediate reading of their blood sugar. They do this to prevent a 'hypo', which is when their blood sugar dips to dangerously low levels.

Type 2 diabetes is caused due to insufficient insulin production, or the body failing to react to the insulin that has already been produced in the pancreas. Type 2 diabetes can result from genetic factors or being inactive or overweight.

How Does Alcohol Affect Type 1 Diabetes?

Alcoholism increases the risks of hypoglycaemia, which a patient with type 1 diabetes experiences. That happens even when a moderate amount of alcohol is consumed.

The reason being high carbohydrate levels are found in many alcoholic drinks, which can then raise the level of blood sugar. If you find yourself alcohol addictive and you have type 1 diabetes, you should ideally abstain from alcohol.

How Does Alcohol Affect Type 2 Diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes, unlike type 1 diabetes, originates from varied personal and lifestyle factors. For type 2 diabetes, in the early stages, while the body is still capable of insulin production, it is insulin resistance.

That is what leads to hyperglycaemia, unusually high levels of blood sugar. However, with time, the body only manages to produce inadequate levels of insulin. While you can always drink alcohol as a person with diabetes, avoid excessive consumption and monitor, closely, your blood sugar levels.

7 Things to Remember About Alcohol and Diabetes

As we have already seen, one must be cautious when it comes to alcohol consumption as it tends to worsen a diabetic condition. Consequently, here is a list of things to bear in mind:

1. Expect Alcohol Interaction with Diabetes Medications

When you consume alcohol, your levels of blood glucose/sugar can rise or fall depending on your volume of consumption. Diabetes medications such as sulfonylureas and meglitinides can stimulate the pancreas, enabling more insulin production. The result is low levels of blood sugar.

When the effects of lowering blood sugar and diabetes pills are combined, this can result in “insulin shock,” or hypoglycaemia.

2. Alcohol Metabolism Occurs in The Liver

When intoxicated, your liver concentrates on alcohol metabolism (alcohol oxidization) rather than the vital blood glucose regulation. Your body proceeds to metabolize alcohol since it has no way of storing it, like it does with fat, protein, and carbohydrate.

3. Avoid Alcohol Consumption When Hungry

Before drinking alcohol, ensure you have taken a snack or meal rich in carbohydrates. Doing that is vital for greatly slowing down the rate of alcohol absorption into your bloodstream.

4. Remember To Test Blood Glucose Before Drinking Alcohol

It is essential you know your blood glucose level before drinking alcohol as the liver's ability in producing glucose is impaired with alcohol.

5. Drinking Alcohol Causes Hypoglycaemia

Within a few minutes and up to 12 hours after drinking, alcohol can yield the dropping of blood glucose levels. Regular checking makes sure your blood sugar level is healthy. Eating a snack can also help raise blood glucose levels.

6. Drink Slowly To Save Your Life

When you drink excess alcohol, it is common to show symptoms associated with hypoglycaemia like feeling dizzy, tired, and disoriented.

Ensure you wear your diabetes bracelet informing people around you that you are diabetic, especially when you are intoxicated. For raising the level of blood glucose, you need to use glucose tablets and/or food.

7. Drink In Moderation To Save Your Life

You should consult with your healthcare provider in regard to your safe alcohol consumption limit, which depends on your health condition. That may mean avoiding partaking in drinking alcohol at all.

For diabetic men and women, daily, they should have less than two and less than one intoxicant, respectively.

Can You Drink Alcohol If You Have Diabetes?

Generally, all people, including diabetics, are advised by doctors only to drink a low level of alcohol, if consumption is a must. That is vital for significantly reducing potential health risks. According to the Chief Medical Officer of the UK, your consumption in a week must not exceed 14 units. [4]

Drinking alcohol for diabetics is not banned: however, healthcare professionals urge diabetics to understand and watch their limits exceedingly well.

It is not only diabetes that you should concern you; alcohol consumption also increases your risks of developing other major health issues. These may include cancer, liver and heart issues, and mental health.

To properly manage diabetes, and to avoid risks of developing diabetes and other diseases and conditions, you should consume a healthy diet and engage in regular exercise. This is vital for having a healthy blood sugar level.

How Does Alcohol Interfere With Blood Sugar Levels?

Alcohol consumption can lead to low or high blood sugar levels, depending on the consumption amount. The risky low blood sugar happens as the body is impaired, and the liver concentrates on alcohol detoxification from your blood. That is instead of focusing on the healthy managing of blood sugar levels.

When you consume alcohol excessively, you can develop high levels of blood sugar. This is due to the efficiency of the body's insulin becoming greatly suppressed. You must consult with your doctor to understand the risks involved when consuming alcohol.

For How Long Does Alcohol Affect Blood Sugar?

It is a tricky endeavour in trying to balance between alcohol and diabetes. Alcohol not only affects people differently but also, there are different types.

Note that for an alcoholic beverage, it takes the liver between an hour and one hour and thirty minutes for detoxification and elimination to finish. During that time, there is a low blood glucose risk. If you take two drinks, it means your blood sugar is affected for between two to three hours.

Risks of Drinking Alcohol While Living With Diabetes

Yes, you can drink alcohol if you have diabetes: but in moderation. However, the issue of alcohol consumption from a person living with diabetes arises when there is excessive drinking. This can lead to health and life risks, including hypoglycaemia. [5]

With too high levels of blood glucose, it means feeling drowsy, sluggish, confused, or dizzy, and you can even go in a coma. Thus, you should try and avoid this life-threatening situation, even if it is treatable.

A Common risk of a diabetic person drinking alcohol is developing hypertension. High glucose levels and excess alcohol cause this. High blood pressure can compromise the ability of the body to heal itself and cause internal organ damage.

Heavy alcohol drinking, if diabetic, also increases heart disease and attack or stroke risk. Furthermore, alcohol abuse leads to numbness, partial paralysis, and permanent nerve damage.

Should I Drink Alcohol at All If I Have Diabetes

You can still drink if you are diabetic, but it should be done with caution. When drinking, ensure your blood sugar level is healthy, enabled through constant monitoring.

Moderate drinking can cause peripheral neuropathy, while heavy drinking can cause the development of ketoacidosis.

What Happens When A Diabetic Drinks Too Much Alcohol?

Most alcoholic drinks tend to have high levels of sugar content, which spikes levels of blood glucose for a diabetic. Moreover, excessive alcohol consumption causes diabetic coma and hyperglycaemia, and its symptoms can be confused with signs of being drunk.

Symptoms of Dangerous Drinking In Diabetics

Below we have composed a short list of warning signs to look out for if you, or someone you are drinking with, are diabetic. If you exhibit any of the following symptoms, seek medical assistance immediately:

  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Muscle weaknesses
  • Sleepiness
  • Numbness of legs and arms

Are Some Alcoholic Drinks Better Than Others For Diabetics?

Yes, some alcoholic drinks are better than others for those with type 2 diabetes. These drinks include:

  • Beers low in sugar (diabetic drinks) 
  • Wines that are low in alcohol wines 
  • Using sugar-free or diet mixers with your alcohol beverage 
  • Spirits, dry wines, and prosecco have fewer carbs which are more suitable for those with high glucose levels 

Treatment for Alcoholism Among Those with Diabetes

We already know that excess consumption of alcohol with diabetes can be fatal in different ways. First, the monitoring of blood glucose levels continually becomes hard.

Secondly, alcohol abuse leads to unhealthy eating patterns. Hence, a specialized treatment is required for managing alcoholism for diabetics. That may include:

  • Nutritional planning
  • Mental health support
  • Counselling programs for addressing recurrent disorders
  • Medication management
  • Programs for exercise and fitness

Can Alcohol Cause Diabetes?

When you drink alcohol, it leads to the creation of conditions supporting the development and existence of diabetes. Alcohol consumption in excess negatively leads to pancreatitis. This condition leads to β-cells destruction, important for insulin production, storage, and eventual release.

Although alcohol cannot be entirely responsible for causing diabetes, it does have an important role if it is a regular product in someone's diet. Alcohol is high in calories - especially beers and wines - and therefore contributes empty calories to a person's diet.

Alcohol can also increase someone's appetite, causing them to overeat on especially sugary and carb-heavy foods. Inevitably, alcohol affects the way in which the body metabolizes and stores fat, which is all contributing factors to developing type 2 diabetes.

Responsible Drinking For People with Diabetes

Some of the strategies you can rely on for achieving responsible drinking if diabetic include:

  • Wearing medical ID in the form of a bracelet or necklace indicating you are diabetic
  • Understanding your drinking limits to avoid the likelihood of getting drunk
  • Constantly monitor your blood sugar level before, during, and after drinking
  • Avoid drinking when hungry
  • Seeking advice from your health provider in regard to the dangers of alcohol to your health

Golden Rules to Remember About Drinking Alcohol with Diabetes

As we had already indicated, being diabetic does not mean you do not have to drink. However, here are some useful tips for you to follow.

  • Drink alcohol with a meal
  • Avoid drinking before a meal
  • Alcohol affects people differently, learn how it affects you as per your experience
  • Moderate your drinking
  • Check for hypos using by testing blood glucose regularly
  • Drink slowly
  • Alcohol should not be a replacement for a meal

Other Problems Related To Alcohol and Diabetes

Apart from impacting on blood sugar levels, the combination of alcohol and diabetes can cause other problems too, such as:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Interference with some oral medications for diabetics
  • Increased additional weight due to alcohol rich in calories
  • Stimulation of appetite. With excess eating, there is also an increase in blood sugar levels
  • Hypertension

Ready to find out more?

If you are any issues relating to alcohol, diabetes, or substance addiction, contact us now on 0800 111 41 08.

References

[1] www.diabetesatlas.org

[2] https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/quality-and-outcomes-framework-achievement-prevalence-and-exceptions-data/quality-and-outcomes-framework-qof-2014-15

[3] https://www.diabetes.org.uk/resources-s3/2017-09/Diabetes%20UK_position%20statement%20Competency%20Frameworks%20in%20Diabetes.pdf

[4] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/diabetes/

[5] https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article-abstract/23/2/103/96537?redirectedFrom=fulltext

 


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