For people living with diabetes, simple dietary and lifestyle choices can have a large impact. Drinking alcohol, for example, may pose unique health challenges. Understanding how alcohol use affects diabetes can help you decide how it fits into your life.
Consuming alcohol, even in moderation, is not without risk. For people with diabetes, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can result from drinking. This is especially likely when alcohol is combined with medications used to treat diabetes, such as insulin.
Your liver, which serves as your body’s detoxification center, will prioritize metabolizing alcohol over stabilizing your blood sugar. While this is good in the sense that your body will get rid of certain toxins, it can also result in a drop in blood glucose, which may lead to hypoglycemia.
To make matters even more complicated, the symptoms of hypoglycemia are similar to those of being intoxicated. These symptoms can include:
Apart from drinking in moderation, one way to avoid hypoglycemia is to eat or snack while drinking. Your liver is more likely to choose to metabolize alcohol over preserving your blood sugar levels when your stomach is empty1.
Vigilance is key. Learn to recognize your body’s signs of low blood sugar so that you can act accordingly.
Despite what you may have heard, alcohol is not packed with carbohydrates. This can cause confusion for people with diabetes. For example, a 12-ounce beer may have as low as nine grams of carbs, while a five-ounce glass of wine has about four. Though there are carb-heavy drinks—dessert wines, for example—they do not necessarily make for a better drinking option.
Your body tends to absorb liquid sugars rapidly. For this reason, carbohydrate-rich drinks are not really an effective way to prevent hypoglycemia. Again, eating while you drink is a smart choice, as your body will break down food more gradually.
Though often light in carbs, alcoholic drinks can have a high number of calories. If you’re being conscious of your calorie consumption for weight management purposes, it is important to keep this in mind while drinking alcohol.
Living with diabetes does not necessarily mean you have to avoid alcohol completely. In fact, there are certain health benefits to the occasional cocktail or drink. Moderate drinkers, for example, have been shown to experience lower rates of cardiovascular disease.
One drink per day for women, and one to two for men, may also improve your insulin sensitivity and blood sugar management. As always, you should consult with your doctor to determine whether moderate alcohol consumption is right for you.
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