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Alcohol and Diabetes

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Diabetes and Alcohol: Will Alcohol Raise Blood Sugar Levels?

Drinking alcohol may impact blood sugar levels for people with diabetes, especially if their health condition and sugar levels aren't under control. These effects vary on whether a person is in a fed or fasting state.

People who have recently eaten are in a fed state, and their blood sugar levels are usually high. People in a fasting state have empty stomachs, and their blood sugar levels are usually low.

People with diabetes risk developing serious health problems if they drink alcohol while their blood sugar levels aren't balanced. These health complications include: 

Impotence

Impotence is also known as erectile dysfunction. It's a man's inability to maintain an erection.

Peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is a condition where people suffer nerve damage. They have trouble controlling their muscles and feeling different sensations like pain or temperature.

Retinopathy

Retinopathy is an eye condition that affects the retina. It can start with zero to mild symptoms but can eventually lead to blindness.

Diabetic ketoacidosis

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a common condition in people with type 1 diabetes. It occurs when there is a lack of insulin and a spike in glucagon, which is a hormone that prevents blood glucose from dropping too low.

When this happens, the body has an excessive build-up of acids called ketone bodies. People experience symptoms like nausea and vomiting. It can also cause comas or death.

Heart disease

Heart disease is the primary cause of death for people with type 2 diabetes. Alcohol is known to increase blood pressure.

Hypertriglyceridemia

Hypertriglyceridemia is another risk factor for heart disease. It's caused by high levels of lipid fat called triglycerides. It can result in severe inflammation of the pancreas and even death. 

Type 1 Diabetes and Alcohol

Approximately 5% to 10% of people with diabetes have type 1. They need to take daily insulin injections to maintain their condition. Healthcare providers also adjust their meal plans to control blood glucose levels. 

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune reaction where the body stops making insulin. Insulin is an essential hormone in the body. It helps blood sugar enter cells, so they can turn it into energy.

Without insulin, a person can experience hyperglycemia after eating. Hyperglycemia is a build-up of blood sugar, and it can harm the body's organs.

When it comes to this type of diabetes, it can be beneficial to have an occasional alcoholic drink. A standard alcoholic beverage can lower blood sugar levels that tend to get too high.

However, alcohol abuse can increase blood sugar levels during the fed state. This could cause serious health complications for people with type 1, as their blood sugar levels tend to be higher than average.

The effects of alcohol on people with type 1 diabetes also depend on several factors, including:

  • gender
  • weight
  • body fat percentage
  • previous meal
  • physical activity
  • current physical health

More studies are needed to understand the exact role of alcohol in individuals with type 1 diabetes.

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Type 2 Diabetes and Alcohol 

Type 2 diabetes affects around 90% to 95% of grown-ups diagnosed with diabetes in the United States.  It occurs when the body has trouble using insulin properly and cannot regulate blood sugar levels.

Prediabetes is a condition where blood sugar levels are higher than average but lower than those with type 2 diabetes. It's also a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. 

People with type 2 diabetes may experience much of the same alcoholic effects as people with type 1 diabetes. However, people with a dual diagnosis of type 2 diabetes and alcohol dependence have a higher risk of hypoglycemia.

As part of a diabetes care plan, a healthcare professional may prescribe insulin, other injectable medications, or oral diabetes medications to manage blood sugar levels.

Alcohol may interact with these drugs and cause unwanted side effects, which include:

  • impaired liver function
  • build-up of lactic acid in the blood
  • increased need for oxygen
  • low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • high blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
  • flushing
  • headache
  • nausea

It is recommended to avoid heavy or binge drinking to prevent complications that arise due to unstable blood sugar levels. 

Symptoms of Low Blood Sugar From Alcohol

People with type 1 diabetes may experience a delay in hypoglycemia symptoms if they drink alcohol during a fasting state. They can be affected by the hypoglycemic episode for a longer time and experience hypoglycemic unawareness.

Hypoglycemic unawareness happens when a person doesn't experience or recognize the symptoms of lowering blood sugar levels. These symptoms include:

  • vomiting
  • sweating
  • shakiness

If the condition is untreated for too long it can develop into severe hypoglycemia. Symptoms include:

  • lack of bladder control
  • disorientation
  • recent memory impairment
  • excessive involuntary repetition of a thought or behavior

Eating carb-rich meals while drinking alcohol can result in excessive insulin response. Hypoglycemia can arise 2 to 3 hours after eating. 

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Guidelines For Drinking Alcohol With Diabetes 

An occasional standard alcoholic drink should not have any serious effect on blood sugar levels. Levels can either go higher or lower depending on if a person ate or not. 

 In most cases, one drink is: 

  • 12 ounces (oz.) of beer
  • 5 oz. of wine
  • 1.5 oz. of whiskey or other spirits

Excessive drinking (including heavy or binge drinking) may upset blood sugar levels dramatically and result in serious health complications. Consult a healthcare professional first before drinking any type of alcohol.

Many people live with diabetes, but each person is unique. A doctor can best determine if alcohol consumption is a possibility. 

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Alcohol and Diabetes FAQ

Can alcohol cause diabetes? 

Type 1 and 2 diabetes have different, sometimes overlapping risk factors. Family history and age are two primary risk factors for type 1. 

Risk factors for Type 2 diabetes include prediabetes, overweight, low physical activity, and much more. 

It is essential to understand that while alcohol does not cause diabetes, it may worsen other health conditions that lead to the disease. For example, heavy drinking may cause pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) and lead to an impairment of insulin production. 

What other effects can alcohol have on diabetes besides raised blood sugar? 

Heavy drinking can result in ketoacidosis (an excessive build-up of certain acids called ketone bodies).

Individuals with this condition may experience symptoms like nausea, vomiting, coma, or even death. 

Alcohol may also worsen weight gain and elevate blood pressure, increasing the already existing risk of cardiovascular disease.
 
Finally, alcohol may increase the likelihood of an individual developing a diabetes-related eye disease. 

Which alcohol is better for diabetes?

Overweight is a risk factor for diabetes. Avoiding alcohol (which has at least 100 empty calories) is, therefore, the ideal option for preventing weight gain.
 
In other cases, it is best to opt for these alternatives:
- Light beers
- Dry wines
- Non-sugary cocktails 

Updated on May 10, 2022
7 sources cited
  1. Diabetes Quick Facts.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 June 2020
  2. What Is Diabetes?Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 June 2020
  3. Baliunas et al. “Alcohol as a Risk Factor for Type 2 Diabetes A Systematic ...” Diabetes Care, American Diabetes Association, 2009
  4. Howard et al. “Effect of Alcohol Consumption on Diabetes Mellitus: a Systematic Review.” Annals of Internal Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 3 Feb. 2004
  5. van de Wiel, A. “Diabetes Mellitus and Alcohol.” Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 7 July 2004
  6. Rimm et al. "Prospective study of cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and the risk of diabetes in men," BMJ, 1995
  7. Beulens et al. “Alcohol Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in European Men and Women: Influence of Beverage Type and Body Size The EPIC-InterAct Study.” Journal of Internal Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2012 Carlsson et al. "Alcohol consumption and type 2 diabetes." Diabetologia, 2005

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