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What is Blood Sugar?
Blood sugar levels, also called blood glucose levels, are important components of your overall health. They measure the amount of sugar being moved by your blood during a specific amount of time. Glucose is a vital source of energy for cells that compose your tissues and muscles. It also provides fuel for your brain.
Your blood sugar levels are affected by the food and drinks you consume. It's normal for your blood sugar levels to fluctuate throughout the day. Your body regulates them in order to keep them from getting too low or high.
However, people with diabetes have difficulty regulating blood sugar levels. It is important for people with hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels) or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) to monitor their conditions carefully.
If left untreated, these conditions can lead to a number of health problems, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Kidney damage
- Skin conditions
- Nerve damage
- Eye damage
- Hearing damage
- Alzheimer's disease
Connection Between Alcohol & Blood Sugar
Drinking alcohol can have an impact on blood sugar levels (blood glucose levels). For people with diabetes, alcohol use has an even greater effect. Especially if your diabetes is unmonitored or your sugar levels are not under control.
Your liver plays a key role in balancing your blood sugar levels. Alcohol decreases your liver's ability to function. Your liver may not be able to release glucose into your bloodstream properly.
This can be especially dangerous if you have diabetes and take insulin. If your liver doesn't release enough sugar into your blood, you risk becoming hypoglycemic. Conversely, certain alcoholic drinks contain high levels of sugar and can actually spike your blood sugar levels.
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 how much food you've eaten and the amount of alcohol consumed.
A fall in blood sugar may arise for various causes. One leading cause is alcohol’s effect on the liver. A primary function of the liver is to metabolize alcohol. It takes 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). Serious consequences may arise 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) take a 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, alcohol use can lower blood sugar levels in people with an empty stomach. 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 have an increased risk of suffering severe health conditions. Individuals who are heavy drinkers face an even higher risk.
Here are just some examples of health problems that may arise:
- 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.
Tips for Managing Diabetes & Alcohol Consumption
The best thing to do to help manage your diabetes and alcohol consumption is to speak with your doctor. They can give you personalized advice based on your condition and drinking habits.
Here are some tips that can help you manage your alcohol consumption if you have diabetes:
- One drink per day for women, and two drinks for men, is considered "moderate" drinking
- Never drink on an empty stomach, or when your blood sugar levels are low
- Choose light beer over heavy craft beers
- Avoid sugary drinks
- Read the labels and pay attention to the nutritional content for every drink you consume
How to Cut Back on Alcohol
If you are drinking alcohol every day (especially if it's more than one or two drinks), it's probably a good idea to cut back. Here are several tips to help you reduce your alcohol intake:
Set a Realistic Goal
Set a limit on how much you're going to drink. Make it less than one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men. You can also add in other motivators such as getting better sleep or exercising more.
Make a Plan (Write it Down)
Putting your goals down in writing often can help you visualize them. You can also include a list of reasons to reduce your drinking. Your plan should include the amount you want to drink (or not drink) as well as motivation for doing so.
Don't Keep Alcohol in Your Home
One of the easiest ways to reduce drinking is to get rid of alcohol in your home. This removes temptation and can help you reduce the number of drinks you consume. It is less likely that you'll go out for a drink every time you think of having one.
Keep Track of Your Drinks
Keep your plan in a notebook or on your phone. This way you can keep track of your drinks and compare your progress to your goals.
Replace Alcohol with Other Beverages
An easy way to reduce the number of drinks you consume is to replace them with non-alcoholic beverages. If you're out drinking with friends, you can alternate between an alcoholic drink and a soda water, juice, or mocktail.
Do Other Activities
Instead of meeting your friends or dates at bars, come up with other creative and fun activities to do. You can go to a cafe, walk in the park, get ice cream, or go to a museum.
Practice Saying No
Learning to acknowledge and communicate your boundaries will help you keep to your plan. Choosing alcohol-free days can also help manage your friends expectations. Having friends on your side will make reducing your alcohol consumption much easier.
Ask for Help
If you have trouble cutting back on alcohol, it might be a good idea to talk to a professional. An alcohol addiction specialist can help by providing resources, teaching you techniques, or putting you in touch with a treatment program that fits your needs.
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.