Alcohol And Diabetes: Can Diabetics Drink Alcohol?

Last Updated: March 30, 2021

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

The onset of diabetes, or concern that it may develop, prompts many people to examine their food and lifestyle choices. Among the first questions that many ask is: Can diabetics drink alcohol?

According to the American Diabetes Association, most diabetic people can drink a moderate amount of alcohol if their blood sugar level is well controlled. Find out the connections between alcohol and diabetes, whether diabetics drink alcohol, and how alcohol affects a diabetic person. Learn the side effects of alcohol and blood sugar problems, how are AUD and diabetes treated, and what precautions a diabetic person should take regarding drinking.

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a lifelong condition where either the body (the pancreas) does not produce enough insulin or does not work as expected. Insulin is a hormone that facilitates the conversion of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream to cellular energy, which then fuels a wide range of biological activities.

Because of lagging insulin levels, diabetic people have an excess of glucose in the bloodstream. Over time excessive blood glucose levels can damage significant organs throughout the body, including the eyes, heart, and kidneys. If this disease is left unmanaged, it can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, nerve damage, blindness, and kidney failure.

According to the National Diabetes Statistics Report of 2014, 29 million people in the U.S. (9.3 percent of the population) are diabetic. About 86 million adults have prediabetes, a condition that significantly increases their risks of eventually developing the full-blown version of the disorder. An estimated 27.8% of adults have this disease but are undiagnosed.

According to the National Diabetes Statistics Report of 2020, 10.5% of the U.S. population is diabetic. This about 34.2 million people, out of which 26.9 million have been diagnosed while 7.3 million remain undiagnosed. According to CDC statistics, men are more at risk of being diagnosed with alcoholism and diabetes than women.

Types of Diabetes

There are three types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes develops when the pancreas cannot produce insulin or produces too little to be effective. Formerly known as juvenile diabetes, Type 1 typically develops in late childhood or adolescence. It can be genetic or develop after a bout of viral infection or due to an autoimmune disease. It generally produces more severe symptoms than its other types, and those who have Type 1 will need insulin therapy to manage their conditions. People who have type 1 diabetes and drinking problems can suffer from severe health consequences. Drinking increases the risk of the patient experiencing hypoglycemia, which can even be fatal.
  • Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of the disorder. It develops when the pancreas does not produce an adequate amount of insulin, or a body cannot properly utilize the insulin released. Genetic influences make some people more vulnerable to Type 2. Lifestyle factors such as obesity, poor nutrition, and a lack of physical exercise usually trigger its onset. Through lifestyle modifications, the symptoms of Type 2 can often (but not always) be managed without insulin therapy. Drinking interferes with the body’s sensitivity to insulin, becoming a significant risk factor for Type 2. Alcoholism can also cause chronic pancreatitis, which can trigger Type 2 of this disease.
  • Gestational diabetes only occurs in pregnant women and will only be diagnosed if they’ve never had this condition before. Gestational diabetes causes glucose levels to rise during the time a fetus is in the womb. If left untreated, it can cause the unborn child to develop health complications immediately or later in life. Gestational diabetes and alcohol can increase the side effects and the risk of the baby developing type 2 later in his life.

Type 2 diabetes does not develop overnight. A person is usually in a pre-diabetic stage—when his or her glucose levels are higher than usual but not as high as that of a person with diabetes—for some time before they develop type 2 diabetes.

Doctor taking sample diabetic patient's blood.

Can Alcohol Cause Diabetes?

The problematic relationship between type 2 diabetes and alcohol abuse is undeniable, and type 1 diabetes and alcohol do not always mix well, either. Alcoholism can exacerbate the symptoms of diabetes if the disorder is already present. Alcohol-induced diabetes (type 2) can develop in those who carry a predisposition for the condition if the alcoholism is not treated promptly.

Both teetotalers and heavy drinkers can develop diabetes. But chronic alcohol consumption can trigger type 2 diabetes after continued abuse by:

  • Decreasing insulin sensitivity. Excessive drinking can lower the body’s ability to use insulin, inhibiting its capacity to normal blood sugar levels.
  • Causing the onset of pancreatitis. Heavy drinking can cause chronic pancreatitis (severe and enduring inflammation of the pancreas), damaging that organ’s ability to produce adequate insulin supplies. Runaway blood sugar levels—and type 2 diabetes—are one possible consequence of pancreatitis.
  • Adding to body weight and contributing to obesity. Obesity is the primary cause of type 2 diabetes. Alcohol contributes to obesity because it contains lots of calories in the form of carbohydrates (sugars). Additionally, over time, constant drinking can create powerful sugar cravings. That is why so many alcoholics overindulge in desserts and fill their diet with empty (and excessive) calories. Alcoholism also contributes to a lack of exercise and physical activity in general, since men and women with drinking problems frequently suffer from low energy, low motivation, and depression.

These factors help explain why alcoholics are prone to obesity and why type 2 diabetes and alcohol are often closely related.

How Alcoholism Impairs Blood Sugar Control?

It is critical for a diabetic person or a pre-diabetic person to control their blood sugar level. The effects of alcohol and blood sugar make it harder to keep that level within the normal range.

Here are a Few Reasons Why:

  • Alcoholic drinks like beer, sweet wine, cordials, or mixed drinks are loaded with carbohydrates that can cause blood sugar levels to soar.
  • Alcoholic drinks are typically dense in calorie content that can be disastrous drinks for diabetics.
  • Alcoholic beverages contribute to weight gain that, in turn, hampers blood sugar control. Drinking stimulates the appetite, and overeating can cause a spike in blood sugar levels.
  • In the immediate term, alcohol consumption can cause a drop in blood sugar levels.
  • Excessive drinking clouds the senses. This can make a diabetic person choose foods they should avoid. Poor food choices can, in turn, raise or lower blood sugar levels.

Alcohol may inhibit the workings of oral diabetic medications and insulin shots.

The effect of alcohol and blood sugar is profound, both in the short-term and long-term.

Man with beer and fast food.

How Alcohol Affects a Diabetic Person?

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

Hypoglycemia or Low Blood Sugar Level

Hypoglycemia is a condition that causes a diabetic person’s blood sugar levels to plummet periodically.

Also Known as an Insulin Reaction, It Is Marked By: 

  • shakiness
  • nervousness
  • uncontrolled sweating
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • confusion

If not treated promptly with glucose, low blood sugar can lead to fainting, or in some instances, it can cause a sufferer to slip into a diabetic coma.

Binge drinking can also cause blood sugar levels to drop, which makes such behavior extraordinarily dangerous for anyone subject to hypoglycemic reactions. Another problem is that symptoms of low blood sugar levels may be confused with the side effects of drunkenness, making such a condition natural to overlook in alcoholics.

Alcohol also interacts with some diabetic medications such as sulfonylureas and meglitinides. These medicines lower blood glucose levels by stimulating the pancreas to make more insulin. When this blood-sugar-lowering effect is combined with drinking, it can lead to hypoglycemia or “insulin shock,” a medical emergency that can also be fatal.

Hypertension

The American Diabetes Association lists hypertension as a common comorbid condition of diabetes. Alcohol consumption is also known to raise blood pressure levels, yet another negative effect of drinks for people with diabetes. Chronic high blood pressure puts pressure on the heart, damages the blood vessels, and increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure.

Cardiovascular Diseases and Risk of Heart Attacks

Diabetic adults face twice the risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases and heart attacks as people who don’t suffer from the condition. The side effects of alcohol and diabetes increase the risk for serious heart trouble include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Faster heart rate
  • Weight gain
  • Unstable blood sugar levels
  • Boosted levels of triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood that is only safe for the heart in moderate doses.
  • Cerebral infarction

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 because of the combined effects of alcohol and diabetes.

Alcohol in Moderation: The Beneficial Effects for Diabetics

Can diabetics drink alcohol? Many studies have proven that a moderate amount of alcohol is beneficial for the heart and reduces the risk of developing heart disease. However, before drinking, one should always consult a doctor to determine if alcohol is safe for them.

Additional studies have shown that diabetic people can benefit from drinking in moderate quantities, provided their blood sugar levels are under control, and they don’t have other conditions (like high blood pressure) that may be exacerbated by drinking alcohol.

According to a study carried out by the Harvard School of Public Health, women with type 2 diabetes who drink moderately have a lower risk of developing heart disease than non-drinking women with the same condition. Meanwhile, diabetic men who drink moderately also have a reduced risk of developing heart disease, which matches the experience of non-diabetic men who consume small amounts of alcohol.

However, there are NO added benefits for the heart if a person drinks compulsively or to the point of intoxication. On the contrary, excessive drinking damages the heart and is far worse for overall health than complete abstinence.

It is also essential to note that drinking alcohol will not reduce the risk of developing heart disease if other heart-healthy practices are not embraced. Moderate alcohol consumption is acceptable for diabetics and others if it is partnered with regular exercise, a high-quality diet low in harmful fats, no smoking, and ideal body weight maintenance.

Co-Occurring Alcohol and Diabetes Treatment

Diabetes can complicate and aggravate the side effects of alcohol and vice versa. When both these conditions co-occur, a comprehensive treatment program is required to ensure that both diseases are managed together. Both the addiction of alcohol and diabetes are treatable. With the help of highly trained professionals in a specialized co-occurring disorders treatment program, the alcohol dependence can be managed, and patients can learn to lead healthier lives.

The Comprehensive Treatment Programs May Include the Following:

  • Medical detox
  • Medication management
  • Medical monitoring
  • Nutritional planning
  • Mental health support
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Individual therapy
  • Counseling sessions
  • Educational programs
  • Support groups
  • Stress management techniques
  • Relapse prevention
  • Exercise and fitness programs
  • Family programs
  • Holistic methods such as massage therapy, acupuncture, yoga, meditation, etc.
  • Aftercare support

Safe Drinking Tips for Diabetics and Pre-Diabetics

When it comes to alcohol and diabetes, the only choices are safe drinking or no drinking at all.

If one is a diabetic or a pre-diabetic who enjoys the occasional can of beer or a glass of wine, it is essential to practice safe drinking habits all the time. Some studies about the control of Type 2 diabetes and the relationship between alcohol consumption and glycemic control indicate that diabetic patients may use moderate amounts of alcohol. Assuming the equivalent of one drink is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor or distilled spirits, here are some guidelines that can keep on a sustainable path for beer and diabetes:

  • The safe limit for drinking for diabetic men is 1-2 drinks a day.
  • The safe limit for drinking for diabetic women is no more than 1 drink per day.
  • 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.
  • Stay informed and never drink unless one exactly knows the product of consumption. Heavy craft beers may contain twice the amount of alcohol as a light beer, while a screwdriver (vodka and orange juice) would provide more calories and carbohydrates than an equivalent amount of white wine. As a diabetic person, one cannot afford to ignore such distinctions.
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Food decelerates the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream and prevents sharp drops in blood sugar levels in the process.
  • Make it a habit to read the labels on alcoholic drinks. The abbreviation ABV stands for ‘Alcohol by Volume’ and indicates the percentage of a beverage that is pure alcohol.
  • Choose drinks that contain reduced amounts of alcohol, carbohydrates, and calories, like light beer or a dry wine.
  • Mix alcohol with water or low-calorie diet sodas instead of sugary mixers to restrict the carbohydrates and calories consumed.
  • After one had a drink at social gatherings, switch to a non-alcoholic beverage if they feel awkward about not drinking.
  • Stick to the meal plans or calorie restrictions when drinking; if there is a fear that beer and diabetes might cloud the senses or weaken them, ask a friend or a family member to help to stay focused.
  • Always wear diabetes medical alert accessories. This ensures people and paramedics won’t mistake signs of hypoglycemia for drunkenness.
  • Don’t break the routine! If one permits themselves to surpass the drinking limit once, they’ll soon find themselves doing it again and again.
No sugar diet for diabetic woman.

How To Keep Moderate Drinking Despite Being Diabetic?

Carefully monitor the blood sugar and drink no more than one alcoholic beverage per day.

Here’s Some Advice on Staying on a Healthy Path:

  • NO sugary mixers or fried and sugar-laden foods at home. All sources of temptation must be removed.
  • Before heading out for a party, load the phone with alerts that beep at regular intervals throughout the evening and remind not to drink more than one serving or eat too many calorie-rich foods.
  • Whether a patient has type I or type II diabetes, the challenge is to keep blood sugar levels in check and not create conditions that trigger diabetic symptoms.
  • If prediabetes is diagnosed, one must keep the bodyweight under control. Avoid any activities that might make the body less sensitive to insulin or prevent one from producing it in sufficient quantities.

If one has an addiction to beer and diabetes but follows safe drinking rules, drinking limited amounts of alcohol can remain an option if one is prepared to embrace a lifestyle that promotes and preserves wellness. Alcoholism and diabetes are a potentially lethal combination. If one has noticed a problem of controlling alcohol consumption and suffers from diabetes, the only way to ensure safety is to quit drinking and seek treatment for alcoholism immediately.

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Page Sources

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Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: March 30th, 2021

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.