A Look at Diabetes and Alcohol

Medically reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on June 23, 2014Written by Kristeen Cherney

Diabetes and Alcohol

Diabetes affects the body’s production of and reaction to insulin, a hormone that allows the body to process the glucose obtained from food. Diabetes itself is a metabolic disorder that has genetic and lifestyle causes. There is no evidence that alcohol causes diabetes. However, everything you eat or drink can affect your diabetes. Alcohol is no exception.

Having diabetes doesn’t mean that you can never drink alcohol, but you’ll need to take precautions. Drinking poses some serious risks that you should consider. Moderate drinking habits may be safe if your diabetes is under control and your doctor gives you the go-ahead.

No single food or beverage causes diabetes, but a lifetime of unhealthy habits can lead to obesity, which is one of the most common causes of type 2 diabetes. If you drink excessively and fail to exercise and eat a healthy diet, your chances of becoming overweight are greater. Many adults looking to lose weight or avoid weight gain choose not to drink. This is because alcohol is high in calories and lacking in nutrition.

Ketoacidosis

Drinking doesn’t cause diabetes, but it does carry the risk of making diabetes worse. One serious side effect of excessive alcohol intake is ketoacidosis. This occurs when ketone bodies build up in the blood as a result of your body burning fat for energy. Ketoacidosis can happen to anyone who drinks too much.

People with diabetes who drink in excess may be at an increased risk of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). Unlike alcoholic ketoacidosis, DKA can occur without drinking alcohol. Insufficient insulin, high blood sugar, stress, high fever, and heart attack are all potential causes of DKA in people with diabetes.

Warning symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis include:

  • high glucose readings
  • dehydration
  • dry mouth
  • frequent urination
  • excessive fatigue
  • irritability
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea or vomiting
  • confusion

DKA is diagnosed with a urine test to measure ketone bodies. It’s more common in people with type 1 diabetes, but anyone with diabetes can develop ketoacidosis as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. DKA is a serious condition that requires immediate medical care.

Potential Benefits

There are a few potential benefits of moderate alcohol intake. For years, researchers have gone back and forth about the possible cardiovascular impacts of moderate drinking. Some research has shown that alcohol consumption might reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. A study in the journal Diabetes Care reports that moderate drinkers had a 30 percent reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The participants drank 6 to 48 g of alcohol per day, which is between one and four glasses.

The key here is moderation. While the study monitored adults drinking up to four glasses of alcohol per day, this amount exceeds the recommendations set forth by the Mayo Clinic:

  • two drinks a day for men
  • one drink per day for women

These guidelines apply to all adults, not just people with diabetes. Remember that binge drinking is destructive and will do more harm than drinking moderately every day. Exceeding moderate limits can be detrimental to your overall health.

Precautions

Alcohol can be unsafe. The liver metabolizes it rapidly, which can affect your blood sugar levels. Your liver normally regulates blood sugar levels by storing glucose when it’s ingested and releasing it between meals. Check your glucose before and after consumption to monitor any changes.

There are other measures you can take to help prevent diabetic complications. For example:

  • Limit yourself to just one drink.
  • Eat before drinking.
  • Don’t exercise before or after drinking.
  • Carry sugary snacks with you in case your glucose levels drop.
  • Report any unusual symptoms to your doctor right away.

You shouldn’t drink alcohol at all if you take meglitinide or sulfonylurea for diabetes. Alcohol can interfere with these medications and cause your blood sugar to drop. Taking insulin with alcohol can also produce the same effects. Talk to your doctor about whether alcohol consumption is compatible with your condition and treatment regimen.

Outlook

Drinking alcohol is a personal decision that should be made with your best health interests in mind. Alcohol is unlikely to adversely affect controlled diabetes, as long as your doctor gives consent.

It’s important to monitor your blood sugar regularly. Whether or not you have diabetes, drinking large amounts of alcohol can be dangerous.

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