Many people do enjoy a glass of wine once in a while. But have you ever wondered how does alcohol affect blood sugar levels? Have you ever wondered whether it is advisable to drink if you have diabetes?
Alcohol in moderation may be actually beneficial to your body. These benefits include lowering the blood pressure, reducing your risk of heart disease, improving insulin sensitivity and many more benefits. Too much alcohol however has the opposite effects to your health. This is not only important to people with diabetes but to everyone in general.
Binge drinking in a person with diabetes is potentially dangerous. The danger goes beyond just blood sugar control. It can also worsen diabetes associated complications such as eye damage and nerve damage.
Also known as ethanol or ethyl alcohol, alcohol is a substance found in beer, spirits or wine that makes you drunk. Alcohol is formed through a process called fermentation. During this process of fermentation, yeast or bacteria reacts with the sugar in the food (it may be fruits or grains) to form alcohol and carbon dioxide. The longer the fruit or grain is left to ferment; the high the amount of alcohol will be produced.
Alcohol and Diabetes
When you have diabetes, it is important for you to understand alcohol and blood sugar levels, and how the two interact. Alcohol itself reduces blood sugar levels. Isn’t this good news for my sugar levels? One would wonder. Not so fast. First we need to understand how the body works. The liver is an organ that keeps glucose (blood sugar) stores in the form of glycogen. When needed by the body, glycogen is converted back into glucose by the liver, for energy. It regulates the steady flow of glucose to provide your body with regular source of energy.
Once ingested, alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream via the intestines. It is then metabolized mainly by the liver. The liver is also the key factor in regulating your sugar levels. It however, cannot do two things at a time. The liver then stops producing glucose and starts breaking down the alcohol as it views as a toxin in the body. Therefore, alcohol ingestion interferes with glucose production in the liver by inhibiting its ability to release glucose into the blood. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) subsequently happens. This is especially important to people with diabetes that are on medication or insulin. As their medication/insulin keeps on lowering the blood sugar levels, their liver is not able to produce enough glucose to keep the blood glucose at desirable levels.
Not all alcoholic drinks will have the same effects on blood sugar levels. Some do have carbohydrates added to them (beers) whereas others like spirits do have little or no carbohydrate. When you happen to take a carbohydrate-added (sugary) alcoholic drink, you will experience an initial rise in your blood sugar levels. Once the body absorbs the carbohydrate in the drink, the alcohol will still be present in your blood stream. The liver will continue to breakdown this alcohol and your blood sugar levels will start to decline. This is because the effects of alcohol on the liver can last for hours. Again another factor will be the amount of alcohol you have taken. The more alcohol you drink, the longer the effects of alcohol on your sugar levels.
Hypoglycemia simply means a fall in the blood sugar levels below normal. It is very common in people who binge drink because of the effects on the liver discussed above. Imagine if you binge drink and then go to sleep. You just might not wake up the next morning.
Often when experiencing symptoms of hypoglycemia, and alcoholic might crave more alcohol in an effort to correct them. Though alcohol may contain some level of sugar, this is not what the body needs. The more alcohol you drink, the more insulin will be released by the pancreas, and the more the liver will not be able to produce glucose to provide the body with energy. When this happens the blood sugar levels continue to drop.
Again symptoms of hypoglycemia are very much similar to alcohol intoxication. Therefore, alcohol intoxication can mask symptoms of hypoglycemia making it difficult to recognize it on time.
Other effects of alcohol related to diabetes
Too much alcohol can affect so many processes in the body from the brain, the heart, the liver to the pancreas. Regularly drinking alcohol is again associated with numerous cancers affecting different organs of the body. On this discussion, we are only going to talk about effects that are directly related to diabetes.
Alcohol can lead to weight gain
Added sugar and calories (it has a lot) from alcoholic drinks can add to your weight problems especially when you constantly drink too much. We know that weight gain is a significant risk factor for type-2 diabetes and does lead to complications in the long run if you already have diabetes.
Alcohol is a diuretic
Alcohol will cause you to urinate a lot. It causes your kidneys to release more water than it normally does. This is because alcohol suppresses the release of a hormone that signals to the kidneys to hold on to the water. Hence, alcohol itself can cause dehydration. Certain drugs that are used in type-2 diabetes may also cause you to urinate a lot in the process of removing excess sugar from your blood. These two combined may lead you to dehydration faster. Dehydration is not good as it leads to high concentration of sugar in your blood and can make you prone to urinary tract infections.
When you are already struggling with high levels of triglycerides in your body, even just one or two drink per day of alcohol can worsen this. High lipids in a person with diabetes puts you at a high risk of getting diabetes related complications along with cardiovascular diseases.
Alcohol can affect your judgment
When you are drinking it’s much harder to make good food choices. You are more likely to crave for heavier oily foods after a night of drinking. This can result in wrong food choices which may affect your blood sugar levels or your health in general. Wrong food choices do result in weight struggles and other health problems.
Alcohol affects you immune system
Drinking too much alcohol can make your immune system to become weak. Once weak, you become susceptible to a number of infections. It is especially common in chronic drinkers. Diabetes itself may weaken your immune system. Combined with alcohol, the effects may become worse.
Drinking safely in diabetes
When you don’t drink alcohol already, there is no reason to start.
When you do decide to drink, it is advisable to wear a medical alert that states that you have diabetes.
Always ensure that you check your blood sugar before, during and after drinking. The more alcohol you drink, the more you should check your blood sugar even after drinking. The effects of alcohol on the liver can take up to 12 hours after drinking, depending on the amount of alcohol taken.
Remember to record your blood sugar levels for future reference. This is especially important for people using insulin. Record how much alcohol you have had, the amount of insulin and the blood sugar levels. Do not depend on someone else’s sugar levels after drinking a glass of wine. Everyone is different. A glass of wine can drop the blood sugar levels on someone and do nothing to another person’s levels.
Always take your alcohol drink with your meals. Do not replace your meals with alcohol.
Drink slowly or mix your alcohol with non-alcoholic beverages such as a diet soda.
Avoid sugary alcoholic drinks and opt for those low in carbs. They initially increase your sugar levels but can cause a sharp drop in your blood sugar levels hours after drinking.
Ensure that people around you or at home are aware that you have diabetes and when you have taken alcohol. Teach them about diabetes and about the signs of hypoglycemia.
Discuss with your doctor about your alcohol intake so that you discuss the meal plans that incorporate alcohol.
Taking the right portions
Alcohol in moderate amount may actually be good for the body but excessive and frequent alcohol intake brings about a lot of health problems as discussed. As a person with diabetes you must pay attention to the amount of alcohol that you are taking as this can help you prevent taking too much.
It is generally recommended that men should take no more than 2 drinks per day or average and no more than 1 drink per day for women. One alcoholic drink is equivalent to 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1 ½ ounces of distilled spirits.
What about those without diabetes
People without diabetes must as well take into consideration the amount of alcohol they are taking because it does affect their bodies as well
Alcoholic drinks are high in sugar and calories. Increased calories may cause weight problems. Obesity is an important risk factor for type-2 diabetes. Taking too much alcohol overtime thus put you at a risk of developing type-2 diabetes. It is therefore advisable to count in those calories on your overall diet to avoid superseding your overall target.
Even if you don’t have diabetes, alcohol can cause temporary hypoglycemia in your body as it affects the liver the same way as in people with diabetes. The liver is unable to function properly in the presence of alcohol.
Things to remember
When you have type-1 diabetes, regularly test your blood sugar levels before, during and after drinking as insulin combined with alcohol are likely to cause hypoglycemia.
When you have type-2 diabetes take into considerations the amount of calories you are taking form alcohol to avoid weight problems. Do not take the calories in an alcoholic drink as the carbohydrate choice of your meal plan. Pay attention to the labels as the amount of carbohydrate or sugar may vary in every alcoholic drink.
Remember to drink in moderation as regular heavy drinking is associated with many health problems outside diabetes related problems.
Check your blood sugar levels when you go to sleep to prevent hypoglycemia whilst you are sleeping.
Remember to discuss you meal plans with your doctor.