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Alcohol & Diabetes: Risks, Side Effects & More

Diabetes is a condition that requires careful management, and drinking alcohol may pose serious risks. For most diabetics, drinking is not a good idea as it can affect blood sugar levels and interact with medications. However, if your blood sugar is under control and you don’t have health complications, it may be safe to drink alcohol occasionally. In this article, we discuss the connection between alcohol and blood sugar, whether diabetics can drink alcohol, the risks of drinking alcohol as a diabetic, the benefits of moderate drinking, and whether alcohol use can cause diabetes.

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For most people with diabetes, drinking alcohol isn’t a good idea. According to Tufts Medical Center, you should never drink alcohol if you have trouble controlling your blood sugar levels.

Avoiding alcohol is essential if you have complications from diabetes, such as eye problems, nerve, or heart issues. You also shouldn’t drink if you have high cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

However, if your blood sugar is under control and you don’t have health complications, it may be safe to drink alcohol occasionally.

You may have heard that alcohol has some heart health benefits. For many diabetics, the serious risks outweigh the benefits. Talk with your health care provider to confirm if it is safe for you to drink any alcohol.

The Connection Between Alcohol & Blood Sugar

Alcohol can also interfere with hypoglycemic medications, and this can be very dangerous for people with diabetes.

Alcohol directly affects blood sugar levels. Even when drinking a small amount of alcohol, diabetic individuals need to factor this into their overall food plan and consider its effects on their levels.

Excessive drinking can be especially dangerous for people with diabetes.

Diabetics may have hypoglycemic unawareness. This means that people with diabetes may not notice the warning signs of low blood sugar. This can lead to further problems and risks, such as cardiac problems, brain damage, and heart attacks.

Can Diabetics Drink Alcohol?

While diabetic individuals can drink alcohol in small amounts, it’s very important that you stay aware of what you consume and its effects on your blood sugar.

Alcohol increases the effects of diabetes medicine, putting you at greater risk for low blood sugar. Some combinations of diabetes medicines and alcohol can create serious problems.

If you choose to drink alcohol, here are some practical tips:

  • Do not drink on an empty stomach. Eat a snack before or with your drink. 
  • Do not skip meals or use alcohol as a substitute for a meal.
  • If you use wine to cook, choose regular wine instead of cooking wine. There is less sodium.
  • If you have been drinking, confirm blood sugar levels are at least 100 to 140 milligrams per deciliter. 
  • Eat a snack before bedtime to prevent low blood sugar during sleep. This is particularly important if your regular eating schedule was thrown off due to a social engagement.

A drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol such as vodka.

If you are concerned about alcohol’s effects on your blood sugar levels, follow these tips:

  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with a glass of water. This is a natural way to stay hydrated and cut overall alcohol consumption.
  • Switch to drinks that contain less alcohol per drink. This generally also means they contain less sugar per drink.
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Food slows down how fast the alcohol is absorbed into the body.

The general guidelines for safe drinking are a little different for women and men. For women, if you choose to drink, have no more than one drink per day. For men, have no more than two drinks per day.

The definitions of a drink are quite specific.

The Risks of Drinking as a Diabetic

Alcohol can raise blood pressure, and repeatedly binge drinking can result in long-term increases in blood pressure. High blood pressure can make some of the problems experienced by diabetics worse. This can lead to kidney failure, retinopathy, and heart disease.

Most health issues are worsened by alcohol abuse, particularly issues that are already potential risks for those with diabetes. This includes eye disease, liver disease, and nerve damage in the legs or arms.

For example, diabetes already raises the risk for fatty liver disease and cirrhosis. If you combine this with chronic drinking, the risk of liver disease is even higher.

Alcohol can increase the effects of diabetes medicine and lower your blood sugar even more. If you choose to drink, keep a high-carbohydrate snack on hand. Have some glucose tablets readily available in case your blood sugar drops.

It is essential for all diabetics to stay in control of their blood sugar. Keep this in mind if you drink in moderation. Wearing a diabetes bracelet or keeping a diabetes identification card in your wallet is a smart way to stay safe.

Are There Any Benefits of Drinking Alcohol if You Are Diabetic?

Some studies show that moderate drinking is linked to a lower risk of heart disease. However, any potential upside to moderate drinking is not generally worth it for diabetics.

Red wine is often associated with heart-healthy benefits. The benefits of red wine may be linked to compounds such as flavonoids that are also found in vegetables and herbs.

Resveratrol, a beneficial compound found in red wine, is also found in berries, grape skins, and cocoa. As these compounds are found in other dietary sources, the health benefits are not limited to wine alone. As a result, it’s generally recommended to get the benefits of resveratrol from other sources like grapes.

Can Alcohol Use Cause Diabetes?

The jury may still be out on whether moderate alcohol consumption is a risk factor for diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, a drink or two may improve insulin sensitivity.

One 2015 meta-analysis examined data from over 1.9 million people and found that moderate alcohol consumption seemed to provide protection against diabetes in women and Asian populations. However, heavy alcohol consumption raised the risk for diabetes across almost all groups studied.

Regularly drinking above the “low-risk” guidelines increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Heavy drinking can increase your risk for diabetes in the following ways:

  • It can reduce your sensitivity to insulin. 
  • It can cause pancreatitis, which is inflammation of the pancreas. 
  • It can contribute to weight gain and obesity.

While low to moderate alcohol use may potentially lower the risk of diabetes, excessive use can cause problems that potentially lead to diabetes.

How to Best Prevent Diabetes

The CDC estimates that 96 million adults in the United States don’t know that they are at risk of developing diabetes. According to the CDC, it’s common for blood sugar to be elevated above normal for quite a while before a person develops type 2 diabetes.

Prediabetes is characterized by risk factors that are associated with an unhealthy lifestyle. These can include being overweight, physically inactive, and over 45 years old. Another risk factor is having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes.

Recommendations to prevent diabetes include managing stress, staying motivated, and adopting a healthy diet and exercise lifestyle. Drinking excessive alcohol can contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle, so it’s wise to cut back on drinking.

What if You Can’t Stop Drinking?

If you’d like to stop drinking alcohol, it’s important to realize that you are not alone. There are many skilled professionals who can help you find an approach that works for you and your goals. And many people have been in your shoes and achieved long-term recovery.

It’s important to work with a medical provider who can help you to safely stop drinking, and this medical supervision is even more important if you have diabetes. If you’ve been drinking heavily for a long time, it’s unsafe to simply stop drinking suddenly on your own. You need medical detox to ensure you stay safe during withdrawal.

With comprehensive care, including therapy and ongoing support, you can effectively leave alcohol abuse in your path. With a balanced lifestyle that isn’t governed by alcohol abuse, you can better manage your diabetes, helping you to live a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Updated June 8, 2023
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