Alcoholism and Diabetes: Exploring the Connection

According to the National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2014, 29 million people in the U.S. (9.3 percent of the population) have diabetes. About 86 million adults have pre-diabetes, a condition that significantly increases their risks of developing diabetes.

The onset of diabetes or concerns over the risk of developing the disease prompts many people to examine their food and lifestyle choices. Among the questions that top their minds is “Can I drink if I have diabetes?

Alcoholism and Diabetes

According to the American Diabetes Association, most people with diabetes can drink a moderate amount of alcohol if their blood sugar level is well under control. The key here is moderation.

Moderate amount of alcohol is known to be beneficial for the heart and can reduce the risk of developing heart disease. However, you should always consult your doctor to find out if alcohol is safe for you.

What is Diabetes?

Before delving into the correlation between alcoholism and diabetes, learn more about diabetes. This knowledge will help you understand why doctors and scientists warn against excessive drinking.

Diabetes is a life-long condition where either the body (the pancreas) does not produce adequate insulin or the insulin does not work as expected. Insulin is a hormone that facilitates the conversion of glucose in the bloodstream to cellular energy that fuels us. Diabetics have an excess of glucose in the bloodstream.

Over time, excessive blood glucose levels damage all the major organs of the body, like the heart, kidneys, and eyes. Unmanaged diabetes can increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, strokes, nerve damage, blindness, and kidney failure.

Diabetes: Type I and Type II

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases classifies the types of diabetes.

Type I diabetes is the least common form of the condition:

  • It develops when the pancreas either cannot produce insulin or produces too small an amount.
  • It can be genetic or develop after a bout of viral infection or due to an autoimmune disease.
  • It cannot be prevented.

Type II diabetes is more common:

  • It develops when either the pancreas does not produce adequate insulin or the body cannot properly utilize the insulin that is being produced.
  • It may be genetic.
  • It can also be caused by lifestyle factors like obesity and physical inactivity.
  • It can be prevented by modifying lifestyle factors.

According to scientists at the Harvard Medical School, type II diabetes does not develop overnight. A person is usually at a pre-diabetic stage—when his or her glucose levels are higher than normal but not as high as that of a diabetic—for some time before he or she develops type II diabetes.

Millions of Americans have prediabetes; they are at a greater risk of developing type II diabetes than people whose blood sugar levels are within the normal range.

Can Alcoholism Cause Diabetes?

Alcoholism can cause diabetes if not treated promptly. Alcohol abusers are at risk of developing type II diabetes due to the following reasons:

• Alcohol decreases the body’s sensitivity to insulin.
• Excessive calories from alcohol cause weight gain, obesity, and overeating.
• Lack of exercise and eating harmful sugary foods.
• Pancreatitis due to heavy drinking.

Chronic alcohol drinking can trigger type II diabetes after continued abuse. Alcohol can damage the pancreas and decrease the body’s sensitivity to insulin, while the high-calorie content of alcohol causes the blood sugar level to spike. These are both among the factors that cause type II diabetes.

Both teetotalers and heavy drinkers can develop diabetes. But alcoholism does increase the risk of developing the disease. Here’s how:

  • By decreasing insulin sensitivity: Alcohol abuse can lower the body’s sensitivity to insulin. This can increase the chances of a person developing type II diabetes.
  • By increasing body weight and leading to obesity: Obesity is the primary cause of type II diabetes. Alcohol contains lots of calories and carbohydrates. Besides, alcohol is known to cause fuzzy thinking that may, in turn, make a person choose harmful sugary foods or overeat. Additionally, alcoholics often forego healthy lifestyle habits like exercising that keep obesity in check. All these factors can contribute to increased body weight in persons who drink heavily.
  • By triggering pancreatitis: Heavy drinking can cause chronic pancreatitis that can, in turn, cause diabetes.

How Alcoholism Impairs Blood Sugar Control

It is critical for a diabetic or a pre-diabetic person to control his blood sugar level. Alcoholism makes it harder for a person to keep his or her blood sugar within the normal range. Here’s why:

  • Alcoholic drinks like beer, sweet wine, cordials, or mixed drinks contain lots of carbohydrates that spike blood sugar levels.
  • Alcoholic drinks are typically calorie-rich. They contribute to weight gain that, in turn, hampers blood sugar control.
  • Alcohol stimulates the appetite. A person may overeat that can raise his or her blood sugar levels.
  • Alcohol consumption is also known to cause a drop in blood sugar levels.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption clouds the senses. This can make a diabetic person choose foods he or she should avoid. Poor food choices can, in turn, raise or lower blood sugar levels.
  • Alcohol can inhibit the workings of oral diabetic medications and/or insulin shots.

How Alcohol Adversely Affects a Diabetic Person

Effects of drinking alcohol to people with diabetes:

• Binge drinking can cause hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar level.
• High sugars in alcohol can dangerously elevate the blood sugar level which can lead to other complications.
• Increases the risk of developing heart diseases and can cause cardiac arrest.
• It worsens and triggers diabetic neuropathy or nerve damage.

Whether you or a loved one has type I or type II diabetes, remember that both the conditions bring with them a host of complications that may be aggravated by binge drinking and/or alcoholism:

  1. Hypoglycemia or Low Blood Sugar Level

This is a condition when a diabetic person’s blood sugar drops below normal levels. Also known as insulin reaction, it is marked by shakiness, nervousness, sweatiness, dizziness, drowsiness, and confusion. If not treated promptly with glucose, low blood sugar can lead to fainting or worse, send the person into a diabetic coma.

Now binge drinking can also cause blood sugar levels to drop. In people with diabetes, the blood sugar level may become dangerously low. Another cause for concern is that the symptoms of low blood sugar level may often be confused with drunkenness in an alcoholic and ignored.

  1. Hypertension or High Blood Sugar

The American Diabetes Association lists hypertension as a common comorbid condition of diabetes. On the other hand, alcohol consumption is also known to raise blood pressure levels. Chronic high blood pressure puts pressure on the heart, damages the blood vessels, and increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure.

  1. Cardiovascular Diseases and Risk of Heart Attacks
According to the American Diabetes Association, the rates of death from cardiovascular diseases and heart attacks are both about twice higher in people aged 18 years and older and diagnosed with diabetes than in adults who don’t have the condition.

Alcoholism increases the risks of cardiovascular diseases and heart attacks because of a combination of one or more of the following factors:

  • By increasing blood pressure
  • By increasing heart rate
  • By increasing the level of triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood
  • By contributing to increased body weight
  • By adversely impacting the control of blood sugar
  1. Nerve Damage

Diabetic neuropathy is a neurological condition that afflicts many long-term diabetics. They often experience pain, numbness, and burning and tingling sensations that may be worsened by alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse is known to cause nerve damage even in people without diabetes.

Nerve Damage Caused by Alcohol

Alcohol in Moderation: The Beneficial Effects for Diabetics

Many studies have proven that a moderate amount of alcohol is beneficial for the heart and reduces the risk of developing heart disease. Now additional studies have shown that diabetic persons too can benefit from drinking in moderate quantities, provided their blood sugar levels are under control and they don’t have conditions, like high blood pressure, that may be worsened by drinking alcohol.

According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health:

  • Women with type II diabetes who drink moderately have a lower risk of developing heart disease than women with the same condition but who do not drink.
  • Diabetic men who drink moderately reduce their risk of developing heart disease. The reduction in the risk level is similar to what it is for non-diabetic men who drink small amounts of alcohol.
  • There is NO greater benefit for the heart if a person drinks more than what is considered moderate. On the contrary, excess drinking negates the beneficial effects of alcohol by damaging the heart.
  • Drinking alcohol does not reduce the risk of developing heart diseases if other heart-healthy practices like exercising, not smoking, not eating bad fats, and maintaining the ideal body weight are not followed.

Heart disease is one of the most severe complications of diabetes. But if you want to reap the benefits of alcohol, ask your doctor first about the safe limit for drinking with diabetes.

Although alcohol is beneficial for the heart, doctors warn that diabetics who are teetotalers need not start drinking just for this reason. They can follow other heart-healthy lifestyle practices to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Safe Drinking Tips for Diabetics and Pre-Diabetics

If you are a diabetic or a pre-diabetic and love to wind up your day with a glass of wine, ensure that your practice safe drinking habits.

First, know the portions that are safe for you and the typical alcoholic drink measurements that will help you make the right choices:

  • The safe limit for drinking for someone who has diabetes is the same as what it is for any other person without diabetes.
  • The safe limit for drinking for men with diabetes is no more than two drinks a day.
  • The safe limit for drinking for women with diabetes is no more than a drink per day.
  • One serving of drink is equivalent to 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor or distilled spirits like vodka, whiskey, or gin.
  • Some drinks contain more alcohol and/or carbohydrates than others. For instance, heavy craft beers can contain twice the amount of alcohol than light beer while screwdriver (vodka and orange juice) contains more calories and carbohydrates than an equivalent amount of white wine.
  • One drink of alcohol is usually considered as calorie-rich as two servings of fat. Diabetics on calorie-restricted diets should adjust their meals accordingly after drinking.
Whether you are a diabetic or a pre-diabetic, you have to always to drink in moderation keeping in mind the above numbers.
Also, form and sustain the following habits:

  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Food slows down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. This prevents sharp drops in blood sugar levels.
  • Make it a habit of reading the labels on alcoholic drinks. The abbreviation “ABV” stands for Alcohol By Volume and indicates the percentage of the drink that is pure alcohol.
  • Condition yourself to choose alcoholic drinks that contain low amounts of alcohol, carbohydrates, and calories, like light beer and dry wine.
  • Mix alcohol with water or low-calorie diet sodas instead of sugary mixers to restrict the carbohydrates and calories you consume.
  • At social gatherings, after you have had a drink (or two), switch to a non-alcoholic beverage if you feel awkward about not “drinking.”
  • Stick to your meal plans or calorie restrictions when you drink. If you fear that alcohol might cloud your senses or weaken your resolve, ask a friend or a family member to remind you.
  • Wear your diabetes medical alert jewelry at all times. This ensures people and/or paramedics don’t mistake signs of hypoglycemia for drunkenness.

Take a leaf out of Martha’s book.

Martha has been suffering from type II diabetes for over a decade now. But she has not given up drinking; she loves the Sherry and the gin too much to become a teetotaler! She ensures that she manages her blood sugar levels and drinks no more than one drink a day.

Here’s how she manages her blood sugar levels:

  • There are NO sugary mixers or fried and sugar-laden foods in her home. This ensures that even if she craves calorie-dense sweets and snacks or wants to mix orange juice with her alcoholic drink, she can’t.
  • Before heading out for a party, she loads her phone with alerts that beep at regular intervals throughout the evening and remind her not to drink more than one serving or eat too many calorie-rich foods. The reminders do the trick even if she has trouble thinking clearly after a drink or two.
Whether you have type I or type II diabetes, your challenge is to keep your blood sugar levels in check and not create conditions that trigger or aggravate the serious complications of the disease. If you have prediabetes, you must ensure that you keep your body weight under control and not make your body resistant to insulin. Alcoholism does not help you meet these challenges. If you choose to drink, make sure that you stick to the safe limits.

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