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Alcohol and Diabetes

Managing Your Blood Sugar When Drinking Alcohol

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Updated June 10, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Alcohol and Diabetes

It's possible to keep blood glucose in balance when drinking alcohol in moderation.

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People with diabetes can consume alcohol in moderation if they are mindful of how it might affect their blood sugar. Unfortunately, most people with diabetes don’t give enough attention to the interaction between alcohol and blood sugar. Learning a few facts about how diabetes and alcohol mix can help you prevent any serious blood sugar reactions.

How does alcohol affect blood sugar?

What most people forget when they drink alcohol is that it contains carbohydrates, which raise your blood sugar. Too often, people fail to factor these alcohol-related carbohydrates into their overall meal plan or insulin requirements. As a result, you could see a significant spike in glucose levels, depending on how much alcohol you drink.

A related issue is weight gain. Many people with diabetes also struggle with excess weight, and alcohol contributes additional calories that can quickly add up, especially if these calories are not factored into your overall meal plan.

Alcohol can also lower blood sugar

What surprises people with diabetes more often is that alcohol can also lower blood sugar levels. When you consume alcohol, it is metabolized in the liver, which is also where you store some of your body’s glucose. When you need that glucose for energy, your liver acts to release it into your system. Alcohol can interfere with the liver’s release of glucose and can result in low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) for up to 12 hours after you have a drink. This means that if you are taking insulin or oral medications to help lower blood sugar, this could cause your blood sugar to go dangerously low.

So, the short-term effect of consuming alcohol can be an increase in blood sugar levels. But a longer-term effect might be a drop in blood sugar. Of course, the more serious of the two swings would be a low blood sugar reaction. But either way, it can be a difficult balance to achieve.

Here are some tips to achieve that balance and avoid both extreme reactions that might result from alcohol consumption:

  • Always check your blood sugar before you have a drink so you can manage your blood sugar in a proactive manner.

  • Know how many carbohydrates are in one drink. This is especially important when the alcoholic drink includes mixers, fruit juice, or regular soda, which typically increase the number of carbohydrates significantly. To lower the carbohydrate count, substitute soda water, no-calorie soda, or artificially sweetened juices.

  • Factor the carbohydrates in alcohol that you consume into your overall food and beverage intake and calculate your needed insulin requirements accordingly.

  • Don’t consume alcohol on an empty stomach. Eat a carbohydrate snack before or while you drink to avoid low blood sugar.

  • Drink in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 defines drinking in moderation as no more than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men. One drink, by definition, is a 12-ounce beer, 8-ounce glass of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.

  • Check your blood sugar periodically in the following 12 hours after drinking alcohol to ensure that your glucose levels remain in a normal range.

Sources:

American Diabetes Association. "Alcohol."

Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. United States Department of Agriculture. "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010"

Joslin Diabetes Center. "Diabetes and Alcohol".

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