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Diabetes and Alcohol Consumption Guidelines

  • Date: 2013/10/22 (Rev. 2017/01/16)
  • Thomas C. Weiss - Disabled World
  • Synopsis : Information regarding the effects of drinking alcohol if you are a diabetic including consumption guidelines.

Main Document

Diabetes, a condition which affects millions of people in America, is a complex one interfering with a person's body sugar, fat, and protein metabolism.

The condition is caused in the majority of instances by a deficiency or complete lack of the hormone, 'insulin,' which is produced in a person's pancreas, or by an inability of the person's body to respond appropriately to insulin also referred to as, 'insulin resistance.' The results of both conditions may include chronically elevated blood sugar levels, excessive excretion of sugar in the person's urine, and accumulation of certain acidic substances in their blood. If diabetes is not prevented or treated properly, the changes may lead to coma or even death. Additional adverse events associated with diabetes affect a person's kidneys, eyes, skin, nervous system, and circulatory system.

Many people with diabetes wonder if drinking alcohol is off limits.

Research has actually discovered that moderate drinking has little effect on a person's blood glucose control and does not have a negative effect on heart disease risk. People who experience diabetes should follow the same guidelines as people who do not have diabetes if they choose to drink. Women should have no more than one drink each day, while men should have no more than two drinks each day. A drink is equal to a five ounce glass of wine, a twelve ounce beer, or one-and-a-half ounce shot of vodka, whiskey, gin, or other type of distilled spirits. Additional suggestions include:

  • Sip your drink slowly and make it last
  • Wear identification noting you have diabetes
  • Do not drive for several hours after you drink
  • Do not drink when your blood glucose is low or on an empty stomach
  • Do not skip food from your regular meal plan and replace it with alcohol
  • Try a light beer or a wine spritzer made with wine, club soda and ice cubes
  • Avoid craft beers which may have twice the alcohol and calories as light beer
  • If you use carbohydrate counting in meal plans do not count alcohol as a carbohydrate choice
  • Have a zero calorie beverage such as water, diet soda, or ice tea next to you and keep yourself hydrated
  • With mixed drinks choose calorie-free drink mixers such as club soda, diet soda, water or diet tonic water
Chart showing tips for people with diabetes who drink
Chart showing tips for people with diabetes who drink

If you decide to drink alcohol, have it with food. It is particularly important to do so for people on insulin and diabetes pills such as meglitinides and sulfonylureas - they lower a person's blood glucose by making more insulin.

Effects of Alcohol on People with Diabetes and Suggestions

Alcohol can cause people with diabetes to experience hypoglycemia shortly after drinking and for up to twenty-four hours after they drink alcohol. If you decide you want to drink alcohol, it is important to check your blood glucose before you drink and eat either before or while you drink. You should also check your blood glucose before you go to bed to make sure it is at a safe level. If your blood glucose is too low, eat something to raise the level.

Be aware that the symptoms of too much alcohol consumption and hypoglycemia can be similar - dizziness, disorientation, and sleepiness. You certainly do not want anyone to confuse hypoglycemia for drunkenness because they might not give you the appropriate assistance and treatment. The best way to receive the help you need if you are experiencing hypoglycemia is to always wear a form of identification stating you have diabetes.

Alcohol might decrease your resolve to remain on track with healthy eating. If you plan to have a glass of wine at dinner, for example, or if you plan to go out for the night, plan ahead so you will be able to stick to your usual meal plan and will not be tempted to overindulge. Communicate with your health care professional about whether alcohol is safe for you. If you drink alcohol at least several times a week, be sure to inform your doctor before they prescribe a diabetes pill. Drink only if your blood glucose is under control and test your blood glucose to help you decide if you should drink.

The hormone, 'insulin,' which is produced in a person's pancreas, is an important regulator of blood sugar levels. People who experience diabetes have a pancreas that does not produce sufficient amounts of insulin with type 1 diabetes, or their body does not respond appropriately do insulin with type 2 diabetes. The consumption of alcohol by people with diabetes may worsen their control of blood sugar levels. For example, long-term alcohol use in well-nourished people with diabetes may result in excessive blood sugar levels.

Long-term alcohol use in people with diabetes who are not adequately nourished may lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels. Heavy drinking, especially in people with diabetes, may also cause the accumulation of certain acids in a person's blood that can result in severe health consequences. Alcohol consumption may worsen diabetes-related medical complications such as nerve damage, fat metabolism, and eye disease.

People who experience either type 1 or type 2 diabetes who pursue single episodes of alcohol consumption usually do not experience clinically significant changes in their blood sugar levels. In fact, some studies have indicated that isolated episodes of drinking with a meal might have a beneficial effect by slightly lowering blood sugar levels that tend to rise too high. The potentially beneficial effect was observed in both women and men, despite their age.

The amounts of alcohol administered in the studies was usually between 0.5 g/kg (gram per kilogram body weight) and 1 g/kg, leading to blood alcohol levels (BALs) between approximately 0.03 and 0.1 percent. The doses were equivalent to around two-and-a-half to five standard drinks. Of note, studies of acute alcohol exposure in people without diabetes presented quite variable results noting increases, decreases, or no changes at all in their glucose levels.

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