Connection Between Alcohol and Blood Sugar

Drinking alcohol may have an impact on blood sugar levels (otherwise referred to as blood glucose levels). However, for individuals living with diabetes, alcohol use may hold an even greater effect if the medical condition is not monitored, and sugar levels are not under control. 

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It is always recommended to consult a healthcare professional before consuming alcohol to avoid any possible risk. 

The effects of alcohol on blood sugar levels are dependent on two main bodily states:

  • Fed — individuals who have just eaten will have high blood sugar levels. 
  • Fasting — individuals who have not eaten will have low blood sugar levels. 

When blood sugar levels are not in the normal or expected range, serious health conditions may arise.

Some health problems that may result are as follows:

  • Pancreatitis  — this disease refers to the inflammation of the pancreas. When the pancreas does not function properly, it can have difficulty secreting insulin. This hormone helps to regulate blood sugar levels. 
  • Diabetes  — drinking alcohol by itself will not cause diabetes. Nevertheless, too much alcohol, like heavy drinking or binge drinking, may result in conditions like pancreatitis that could lead to diabetes. Also, alcoholic beverages have empty calories (approximately between 100 and 150). This calorie count can rise if these alcoholic drinks also have lots of sugar. Considering that, when individuals drink alcohol, weight gain and obesity are much likelier to occur. Obesity is a well-known risk factor for diabetes. 

In the United States, more than 34 million people have diabetes. However, 4 in every 5 of these individuals are aware that they have the condition. 

How Does Alcohol Lower Blood Sugar?

A standard alcoholic drink from time to time should not cause any serious effect on blood sugar levels. 

A standard alcoholic drink tends to be: 

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of whiskey or other spirits

Whether blood sugar levels rise or fall will depend on different factors, such as the bodily state (fasting vs fed) and the amount of alcohol consumed.

Alcohol may lower blood sugar levels in individuals who are in the fasting state. This group includes people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, as well as those without diabetes. 

A fall in blood sugar may arise for various causes. One leading cause, though, is alcohol’s effect on the liver. A primary function of the liver is to metabolize alcohol, taking approximately one hour for the organ to break down a standard size alcoholic beverage. However, if there is too much alcohol in the body, the liver has trouble performing other organ functions, including: 

  • Glycogenolysis (the breakdown of glycogen into glucose molecules)
  • Gluconeogenesis (the production of glucose molecules from other bodily compounds)

When these two liver processes do not occur due to alcohol metabolism, the body does not have glucose to help bring blood sugar levels back to normal. This means that individuals can develop hypoglycemia (sharp reduction in blood sugar) and face more serious health consequences, including vomiting, sweating, disorientation, and more. 

How Drinking Affects People with Diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune reaction, Those with type 1 diabetes have trouble producing insulin naturally. This essential hormone helps deliver blood sugar into cells for use as energy later. If there is a lack of insulin, the bloodstream can experience hyperglycemia (a build-up of blood sugar) when an individual has just eaten. Hyperglycemia could lead to organ damage. 

Those with type 1 (around 5 to 10% of all people with diabetes) will have diabetes treatment like insulin injections on a daily basis. Healthcare professionals will recommend changing meal plans to help regulate blood glucose levels. 

With respect to alcohol consumption and diabetes, an alcoholic drink every once in a while may  have its benefits. Studies have indicated that a standard alcoholic beverage may bring blood sugar levels down, especially those that often get too high. 

Yet, similar to those with type 2 diabetes, long-term alcohol consumption, e.g. alcohol use, could lower blood sugar levels in people who have not eaten. A decrease of this kind may lead to serious health complications for individuals with type 1, as blood sugar levels can fall even further without the body being able to fight against such a drop.

More studies are needed, though, to assess every factor that has an effect on blood sugar levels. Understanding how alcohol influences individuals with type 1 diabetes is also needed. 

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is found in 90 to 95% of adults diagnosed with diabetes in the United States. 

This disease arises when the body cannot control blood sugar levels due to inadequate insulin usage. Prediabetes (when blood sugar levels are more than normal yet not as high as in those with type 2 diabetes) is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. 

Those with type 2 diabetes may have many of the same health issues mentioned prior for individuals with type 1 diabetes. 

Individuals with type 2 diabetes and alcohol dependence have a higher risk of hypoglycemia. This may be due to both the effects of alcohol on the body and lack of motivation to make recommended lifestyle changes. 

Other Problems Related to Alcohol and Diabetes

If individuals have diabetes and decide to consume alcohol, they may be at risk of suffering from more severe health conditions. Individuals who are heavy drinkers face an even higher risk.

Here are just some examples of health problems that may arise:

  • Impotence
  • Peripheral neuropathy  — a condition that causes nerve damage and makes controlling muscles difficult. It may also result in different sensations like pain or temperature. 
  • Retinopathy  — this is an eye condition that can lead to blindness.
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis — this condition is less frequent in those with type 2 diabetes. It arises when there is a total or almost-total lack of insulin and glucagon levels are extremely elevated. Glucagon is a hormone that helps stop blood sugar levels from decreasing too much. If this condition occurs, it means that the body has too many ketone bodies, a certain type of acid, and symptoms like nausea, vomiting, coma, or even death can result. 
  • Heart disease — this condition is the leading cause of death in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Even though the relationship between alcohol consumption and cardiovascular disease requires more studying in this population, blood pressure can rise due to alcohol. Elevated blood pressure poses a risk for this disease. 
  • Hypertriglyceridemia — this condition is a separate risk factor for heart disease. Hypertriglyceridemia arises when triglyceride (the most frequent kind of body fat) levels are elevated. When this happens, there can be severe inflammation of the pancreas and death can result. 

FAQs — Alcohol Consumption and Blood Sugar Levels

Does alcohol lower blood sugar in non diabetics?

Possibly. Alcohol may lower blood sugar levels in non-diabetics if they are in the fasting state (that is, they have not eaten). However, as each person is unique, the effects of alcohol on blood sugar levels will vary.

How long does alcohol affect blood sugar?

The amount of time that alcohol affects blood sugar levels will vary according to the amount of alcohol consumed, as

What is the best alcohol to drink for a diabetic?

Due to the potential effects of alcohol on blood sugar levels, individuals with diabetes face a higher risk of health problems. Alcohol may interact with diabetes medications, and even worsen side effects associated with such drugs. 
 
Individuals living with diabetes who would like to drink alcohol should therefore speak with their doctors first.  Healthcare professionals can best determine the options available. 

Can diabetics drink whiskey?

A standard drink of whiskey may not have any serious effect on blood sugar levels. However, it is best to consult a healthcare professional before consuming alcohol.
 
Those with diabetes are recommended to mix whiskey with water, diet soda, or club soda.

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Resources

Emanuele, Nicholas V, et al. Consequences of Alcohol Use in Diabetics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1998, www.pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-3/211.pdf.

“Diabetes Quick Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 June 2020, www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/quick-facts.html.

“What Is Diabetes?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 June 2020, www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/diabetes.html.

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Updated on: October 1, 2020
Author
Anthony Armenta
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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