Alcoholism and Diabetes: Exploring the Connection
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According to the National Diabetes Statistics Report of 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 eventually developing the full-blown version of the disorder.
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 a loved one drink if they have 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.
Table of Contents
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a lifelong condition where either the body (the pancreas) does not produce enough insulin or the insulin 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, people with diabetes 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. Unmanaged diabetes can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, nerve damage, blindness, and kidney failure.
Types of Diabetes
There are three types of diabetes:
Type 1 diabetes develops when the pancreas either cannot produce insulin or produces too little to be effective. Formerly known as juvenile diabetes, Type 1 diabetes 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 other types of diabetes, and those who have Type 2 diabetes will need insulin therapy to manage their conditions.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of the disorder. It develops when either the pancreas does not produce adequate insulin or the body cannot properly utilize the insulin that is being released. Genetic influences make some people more vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes. Lifestyle factors such as obesity, poor nutrition, and a lack of physical exercise are what usually trigger its onset. Through lifestyle modifications, the symptoms of Type 2 diabetes can often (but not always) be managed without insulin therapy.
Gestational diabetes only occurs in pregnant women, and will only be diagnosed if they’ve never had diabetes 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.
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 he or she develops type 2 diabetes.
As many as 86 million Americans suffer from prediabetes. They are at a greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than people whose blood sugar levels are within the normal range.
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. Alcohol abuse can lower the body’s ability to use insulin, inhibiting its capacity to regular 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 supplies of insulin. 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 alcohol consumption 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.
Each of these factors helps 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 person with diabetes or a pre-diabetic person to control their blood sugar level. Alcohol abuse makes 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.
- Alcoholic beverages contribute to weight gain that, in turn, hampers blood sugar control. Alcohol 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 alcohol consumption 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 on blood sugar is profound, both in the short-term and long-term.
How Alcohol Adversely Affects a Diabetic Person?
Whether 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 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, and 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, and that 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.
The American Diabetes Association lists hypertension as a common comorbid condition of diabetes. Alcohol consumption is also known to raise blood pressure levels, and this is yet another negative effect of alcohol on 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
Adults diagnosed with diabetes 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 heavy drinking that 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.
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 consumption.
Alcohol abuse is known to cause nerve damage even in people without diabetes, but when alcoholism and diabetes co-occur, the results can be disastrous. Diabetic neuropathy will respond partially to treatment, but it is a condition that can never be completely cured.
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 people with diabetes 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 is NO added benefit 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.
Also, it is 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 the maintenance of ideal body weight.
If one wants to reap the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, please ask a doctor first about how much one can safely drink if they’ve been diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
Safe Drinking Tips for Diabetics and Pre-Diabetics
When it comes to diabetes and alcohol, the only choices are safe drinking or no drinking at all.
If one is a diabetic or a pre-diabetic who enjoys the occasional beer or glass of wine, it is essential to practice safe drinking habits all the time.
Assuming the equivalent of one drink is five 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:
- 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 one 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 person with diabetes, 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.
- At social gatherings, after one had a drink, switch to a non-alcoholic beverage if they feel awkward about not drinking.
- Stick to the meal plans or calorie restrictions when drink. If there is a fear that alcohol 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 gives themselves permission to surpass the drinking limit once, they’ll soon find themselves doing it again and again.
How To Keep Moderate Drinking Despite Diabetes?
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 attacks of 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 you from producing it in sufficient quantities.
If one has diabetes and 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 the consumption of alcohol and suffers from diabetes, the only way to ensure safety is to quit drinking and seek treatment for alcoholism immediately.
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