A cold mug of beer on a hot day, a glass of red wine with a nice dinner, a celebration with a flute of champagne! Alcohol is often included in both everyday life and special occasions. But does alcohol and diabetes go well together?
What is Alcohol?
Ethyl alcohol is the intoxicating ingredient found in drinks like beer, wine, and liquor. It is produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugars, and starches, and is a central nervous system depressant. This means that in low doses, it can begin to promote pleasure or excitement, and in higher doses at levels of intoxication, will lead to reduced mental function and even unconsciousness.
Your liver acts as a glucose reservoir in your body. It helps to keep your circulating blood sugar levels and other body fuels steady and constant. For example, when blood glucose levels drop, your liver works to send its glucose reserves into the bloodstream to help avoid or reduce the occurrence of very low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) (<4mmol/L).
What Happens When You Drink?
The liver is not good at multi-tasking. When you drink alcohol, your liver’s ability to release glucose to regulate blood glucose levels is reduced. This is because the body treats alcohol as a drug and the liver prioritises to break down alcohol into less harmful substances first. In other words, while your liver is busy “detoxing” the effects of that half bottle of shiraz, it may not notice your blood glucose levels falling. As blood glucose levels fall, you can quickly become hypoglycemic.
When the Party’s Over, What are the Consequences?
Alcohol can cause hypoglycemia shortly after drinking and for up to 24 hours after drinking. Your chances of developing low blood glucose are even higher if you:
- Drink on an empty stomach
- Exercise (think dancing in the club or cracking a beer after a run on the treadmill)
- Take glucose-lowering medications or require insulin
Besides, alcohol can impair judgement. You may not realise you are having low blood glucose levels. After all, drunkenness (the result of too much alcohol) and hypoglycemia have similar symptoms like disorientation and dizziness. This could result in you or your drinking buddies mistaking your hypoglycemic symptoms for the effects of alcohol and delaying the help you need (i.e. treating with a sugary food).
We have established that alcohol is not off-limits for people with diabetes. If you want to mix alcohol and diabetes, you just need to take precaution and of course, practice moderation.
Hang on! Before you reach for that refreshing ice cold beer. It’s high time (pun intended!) you considered these top tips too:
5 Tips to Sip on when Mixing Alcohol and Diabetes
- Have a carbohydrate-containing meal or snack when you drink. Never consume alcohol on an empty stomach.
- Test often. Check your blood glucose before you drink, while you drink, and before you go to bed. Ideally, a safe bedtime blood glucose level when you drink is between 5.5 – 7.8mmol/L (100 – 140mg/dL). If your blood glucose is lower than this, eat a 15-30g carbohydrate snack to raise it.
- Certain medications can increase your risk of hypoglycemia. Pay special attention if you are on any insulin, for example, Lantus (Glargine), Levemir (Detemir), and NovoRapid (Aspart), or diabetes medication in the sulfonylureas category, for example, Diamicron (Gilclazide), and Glucotrol (Glipizide).
- Calories from alcohol are ‘empty calories’ and have no nutritional value. If you drink regularly and are aiming for weight loss, cutting back on alcohol may be one healthy way to lose weight.
- If you have a health condition like high blood triglycerides, pancreatitis, liver disease, heart failure or uncontrolled high blood pressure, it is generally recommended to avoid drinking because it may worsen these conditions. Speak to your doctor if in doubt.
- If you enjoy mixed drinks, choose calorie-free mixers like soda water, water, or diet soft drinks.
“Most of the time, people don’t even notice I’m not drinking as my soda water and lime looks no different to what everyone else has in their hands.” – Hayley Westoby
Lady who credits cutting out alcohol as a key part of her weight loss. Read her story here.
Well, still clueless and just need one drink that looks like beer but isn’t beer? You can find Suntory All-Free alcohol-free beverage at the major supermarkets.
Dietitian Jasmine’s pick for an alcohol-free beer. 0 calories, <1g carbohydrates.
Lastly, if you choose to drink alcohol, always do so responsibly.
People with diabetes should follow the same guidelines as those without diabetes if they choose to drink:
- Women should have no more than 1 drink per day
- Men should have no more than 2 drinks per day
As always, be mindful when you mix alcohol and diabetes, but don’t forget to live life.