How Does Alcohol Affect Diabetes?

You may think beer, wine, and liquor would be categorized as food, but in reality, alcohol is a drug. Just like medications, alcohol has powerful physiologic effects on the body and can affect multiple organ systems. Although alcohol affects people without diabetes, it can cause even more pronounced effects in people with the disease.

So how does alcohol affect diabetes? In this article, we will discuss both the immediate, acute effects of alcohol in diabetics as well as the long-term chronic consequences of alcohol consumption. These effects apply to both type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Consumption on Diabetes

Alcohol is metabolized by the body much like fats are metabolized. It also packs almost as many calories. In fact, if you are diabetic and choose to drink alcohol, you should count one serving of alcohol as two fat exchanges. One serving of alcohol is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or ½ ounce of hard alcoholic spirits.

When alcohol hits the bloodstream it will generally cause blood sugar to increase. This is especially true if mixed drinks with sugary juices or sodas are consumed. It is recommended that a diabetic test their blood sugar both before and after consuming alcohol to measure how it affects the body. Also, diabetics should not consume alcohol on an empty stomach. Taking a drink along with food will slow its entry into the bloodstream.

The biggest danger in the short-term from consuming alcohol when you have diabetes is hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. This is because although blood sugar levels generally rise initially after consuming alcohol, they can then sharply plummet for up to 24 hours after an alcoholic beverage is consumed. What is even more perilous is that the symptoms of hypoglycemia, such as stumbling, slurring words, sweating, and losing consciousness, are the same as can occur when a person is drunk. This means that severe low blood sugar, which could be life-threatening, may not be recognized and thus proper treatment with glucose may be delayed. The combination of alcohol, diabetes, and exercise should be avoided because it can put a person at even higher risk for hypoglycemia.

Long-Term Consequences of Alcohol Consumption on Diabetes

If alcohol is used regularly by someone with diabetes, several negative health consequences can result. In addition, complications caused by diabetes may be exacerbated. For instance, chronic alcohol consumption may increase triglyceride levels. High triglycerides are an independent risk factor for heart disease and stroke, separate from the increased risk just from having diabetes. Also, nerve damage which can occur with diabetes can be compounded by chronic alcohol consumption. Finally, alcohol consumption can raise blood pressure, again a risk factor for heart attack and stroke.

Some Final Considerations

The American Diabetes Association recommends that diabetic women drink no more than one alcoholic beverage per 24 hours, and males no more than 2 beverages per day. In addition, it is prudent to wear a medical alert ID bracelet in case severe hypoglycemia occurs. Finally, before drinking any alcoholic beverages, it is important to have a conversation with your healthcare provider to make sure it is safe for you.

It is especially important to consult with your healthcare provider about drinking alcohol if you are on certain medications such as insulin, sulfonylureas, like glipizide or glyburide, or meglitinide because they cause the pancreas to increase insulin release, increasing risk for hypoglycemia. In addition, alcohol must be cleared by the liver. While it is occupied with this task, it can't efficiently complete its primary task which is to maintain proper blood sugar levels.

As you can see, drinking alcohol with diabetes can result in several consequences, both in the short-term and the long-term. Be sure to consult with your healthcare provider before consuming alcoholic beverages. Take proper precautions like testing blood sugar levels before and after consumption, and making those around you aware of the signs of hypoglycemia which may mimic the appearance of being drunk.

If you take the proper precautions and are under medical supervision, moderate, occasional alcohol use, even in the presence of diabetes, is possible.

Sources: WebMD, American Diabetes Association, MayoClinic
Photo: Pexels

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