Why Does Alcohol Lower Blood Sugar?
In This Article
What is Blood Sugar?
Blood sugar levels are also called blood glucose levels. They are essential components of your overall health. They measure the amount of sugar present in 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 change throughout the day. Your body regulates them to keep them from getting too low or high.
However, people with diabetes have difficulty regulating blood sugar levels.
People with hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels) or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) need to monitor their conditions carefully.
If left untreated, these conditions can lead to several health problems, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Kidney damage
- Skin conditions
- Nerve damage
- Eye damage
- Hearing damage
- Alzheimer's disease
Connection Between Alcohol and 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. This is especially true if your diabetes is unmonitored or your sugar levels are not under control.
The liver plays a key role in balancing your blood sugar levels. Because of this competition, alcohol can decrease the proper functioning of the liver in blood sugar control. The liver has to work hard to remove the alcohol from the blood instead of regulating the hormones that maintain appropriate blood sugar levels. On the other hand, alcohol is largely metabolized by the liver.
This can be especially dangerous if you have diabetes and take insulin.
Alcohol can cause both hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia. The liver is in charge of sugar storage as glycogen. When alcohol competes with this function, it cannot release the stored glucose to counter the effect of your insulin medications. This causes high insulin in the blood, increasing the risk of hypoglycemia.
Conversely, certain alcoholic drinks contain high levels of sugar and can 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.2
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. For example, how much food you've eaten and the amount of alcohol consumed.
A fall in blood sugar may arise from 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 someone can develop hypoglycemia (a sharp reduction in blood sugar).
Serious consequences may arise, including:
- Blurry vision
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Lack of balance or coordination
How Drinking Affects People with Diabetes
Drinking alcohol affects people with diabetes in different ways. This depends on what type of diabetes a person has.
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune reaction. Those with type 1 diabetes have trouble with insulin secretion in their pancreas. 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 when a person has just eaten. This refers to a build-up of blood sugar.
Hyperglycemia can lead to organ damage.
Those with chronic and uncontrolled type 1 diabetes take treatments like insulin injections daily. Type 1 diabetes makes up around 5 to 10 percent of all people with diabetes.7
Healthcare professionals will recommend changing meal plans to help regulate blood glucose levels.
In type 1 diabetes, alcohol can significantly lower blood sugar levels when taken on an empty stomach. A decrease of this kind may lead to serious health complications for people with type 1 diabetes. Blood sugar levels can fall even further and can cause unconsciousness, coma, or death.
More studies are needed to assess every factor that affects blood sugar levels. Understanding how alcohol influences people with type 1 diabetes is also needed.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90 to 95% of adults diagnosed with diabetes in the United States. It develops when the body can't control blood sugar levels due to insulin resistance. This is a decreased capacity of the muscles and organs to uptake glucose and use it as energy.
Prediabetes is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. This occurs when fasting blood sugar levels are above the normal range but less than 126mg/dL, which is the level required to diagnose diabetes.
People with type 2 diabetes may have many of the same health issues as people with type 1 diabetes.
In addition, those with type 2 diabetes and alcohol dependence have a higher risk of hypoglycemia. This may be due to alcohol's effects on the body. It can also be due to the lack of motivation to make recommended lifestyle changes.
Other Problems Related to Alcohol and Diabetes
A person with diabetes who consumes alcohol may begin overeating and making unhealthy food choices. This is because alcohol stimulates a person's appetite and may cause a further increase in blood sugar levels. Alcohol also interferes with the effects of diabetes medications.
For people with difficulty regulating blood sugar, alcohol can cause more health problems. Diabetics who are also alcohol users have an increased risk of suffering severe physical health conditions. Diabetic heavy drinkers face an even higher risk.
Here are just some examples of health problems that may arise:
- Erectile dysfunction
- Peripheral neuropathy (a condition that causes nerve damage and leads to numbness, loss of sensation, and pain in the extremities)
- Retinopathy (an eye condition that can lead to blindness)
- Diabetic ketoacidosis (when there is a total or almost-total lack of insulin, so the body cannot use glucose to provide energy for the cells. Instead, it uses fats for energy, which releases ketones, a harmful substance)
- Heart disease (the leading cause of death in people with type 2 diabetes)
- Hypertriglyceridemia (when triglyceride, the most frequent kind of body fat, levels are elevated)
5 Tips for Managing Diabetes & Alcohol Consumption
The best way to 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, it's probably a good idea to cut back. This is especially true if you're drinking more than one or two drinks a day.
Otherwise, you're at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD). 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 the 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 soda water, juice, or a mocktail.
Do Other Activities
Instead of meeting your friends or dates at bars, come up with other creative and fun activities to do.
For example, you can:
- Go to a cafe
- Walk in the park
- Get ice cream
- Visit 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 friend's 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, talking to a professional might be a good idea.
An alcohol addiction specialist can help by:
- Providing resources
- Teaching you techniques
- 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. This means they have not eaten. However, the effects of alcohol on blood sugar levels will vary. Each person is unique.
How long does alcohol affect blood sugar?
The amount of time that alcohol affects blood sugar levels varies according to the amount of alcohol consumed and the type of alcoholic drink. The higher the sugar content of the alcoholic beverage, the longer it affects blood sugar levels.
On an average, one alcoholic drink can stay in the blood for 12 hours.
What is the best alcohol to drink for a diabetic?
Due to the potential effects of alcohol on blood sugar levels, people with diabetes face a higher risk of health problems. Alcohol may interact with diabetes medications and even worsen side effects associated with such drugs.
People living with diabetes who would like to drink alcohol should speak with their doctors first. Healthcare professionals can best determine the options available.
Can people with diabetes 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.
Avoid mixing whiskey with juices or soda with sugar content. This can cause serious hypoglycemia.
Call to find out how much your insurance will cover
- Emanuele, Nicholas V, et al. "Consequences of Alcohol Use in Diabetics," National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1998.
- “Diabetes Quick Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 June 2020.
- “What Is Diabetes?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 June 2020.
- "Alcohol & Diabetes," Diabetes.org, American Diabetes Association.
- "Mixing Alcohol with Your Diabetes," hopkinsmedicine.org, Johns Hopkins University.
- Leggio, Lorenzo et al. “Blood glucose level, alcohol heavy drinking, and alcohol craving during treatment for alcohol dependence: results from the Combined Pharmacotherapies and Behavioral Interventions for Alcohol Dependence (COMBINE) Study,” Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research vol. 33,9 : 1539-44.
- What Is Type 1 Diabetes?, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), March 2021
- Type 2 Diabetes, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), November 2021