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Alcohol and Diabetes: Can Alcohol Use Cause Diabetes?

4 min read · 5 sections
Diabetes is a chronic medical condition that can have various negative effects on your health and wellbeing. Alcohol can impact diabetes as well.
What you will learn:
How alcohol affects blood sugar
How alcohol affects diabetes
How alcohol affects other metabolic functions
How to get help for alcohol misuse or addiction

Depending on the severity of your diabetes and other related health considerations, it may be a good idea to quit or limit your use of alcohol, as alcohol has a big effect on your blood sugar levels.

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic disease that makes it challenging to control your blood sugar, or blood glucose levels. When you eat, certain types of food are broken down into glucose, which is released into the bloodstream.1,2 As your blood glucose levels rise, the pancreas reacts by releasing insulin, which helps your body use glucose as energy at a cellular level.2 People with diabetes have problems either making their own insulin or being able to utilize insulin efficiently; this can result in a rise in blood glucose levels, which, overtime, can lead to major health problems, like heart and kidney disease or vision loss.2

Types of Diabetes

There are a few different types of diabetes.2 Many cases of Type 1 diabetes are thought to result from an autoimmune condition that targets and destroys pancreatic cells that normally make insulin, resulting in profound insulin deficiency.2 Type 1 diabetes is sometimes referred to as juvenile diabetes because many people are diagnosed with the disease as children or adolescents; however, it can affect individuals at any age. Both genetic and environmental factors are thought to contribute to the development of Type 1 diabetes. If you have a parent with Type 1 diabetes, you may be at an increased risk of developing this chronic disease yourself.3 Around 5 to 10% of all people with diabetes have Type 1 diabetes.2

People with Type 1 diabetes must take insulin in order to survive.3 Serious warning signs of undiagnosed or unmanaged Type 1 diabetes can develop rapidly. An individual with Type 1 diabetes might show signs and symptoms that include:3

  • Increased hunger and thirst.
  • Increased urination.
  • Blurry vision.
  • Fatigue.
  • Weight loss.

Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, develops in people who either don’t make enough insulin or whose tissues are unable to efficiently use insulin to utilize blood sugar as energy.4 You can develop Type 2 diabetes at any time throughout your life, but it most commonly develops in middle- and older-aged people.4 Individuals who are overweight or obese, aren’t physically active, or have certain genetic factors may be at a higher risk for Type 2 diabetes.5

Type 2 diabetes may be associated with similar symptoms as Type 1 diabetes. Because of the negative impact that chronically elevated blood sugars have on our microvasculature (or, tiny blood vessels), people with Type 2 diabetes commonly experience issues with things like wound healing, and may also develop numbness or tingling in the extremities.5 Such symptoms can develop slowly, so people may not realize that they have diabetes until their symptoms worsen or they develop health problems like vision loss or heart disease.5

A third, less-common type of diabetes is known as gestational diabetes, which sometimes develops during pregnancy in women without any prior history of diabetes. Gestational diabetes can potentially have harmful effects on the baby’s health; therefore, the mother is monitored closely by a physician throughout her pregnancy. Once the baby is born, gestational diabetes usually resolves; however, it can also develop into Type 2 diabetes in certain individuals.2

Alcohol’s Impact on Blood Sugar

Blood sugar levels fluctuate throughout the day. Low blood sugar, which is relatively common among individuals with Type 1 diabetes, is defined by blood sugar that dips below 70 mg/dL. It can be dangerous if left untreated. There are several factors that can contribute to an individual’s low blood sugar—including taking too much insulin; not eating enough carbs; heat and humidity; the amount of fat, fiber, and protein in their system; high altitude; puberty; menstruation; and drinking alcohol.

Stable glucose levels are critical for normal central nervous system (CNS) and cellular functioning. When blood sugar levels fall, several physiological functions can be adversely impacted. How does alcohol affect circulating glucose levels? It’s not entirely clear. Research indicates that acute administration of alcohol can either reduce blood sugar levels or have no effect on them at all, depending largely on the nutritional state of the individual, how much alcohol they consumed, and the resulting blood alcohol concentration (BAC).8

If you have diabetes, alcohol can make controlling your blood sugar more difficult in different ways. For example, people with diabetes, who drink alcohol and are otherwise well-fed, can develop dangerously high blood sugar levels. On the other hand, people with diabetes, who drink alcohol and are undernourished, can develop dangerously low blood sugar levels.9

How Does Alcohol Use Impact Diabetes?

Chronic heavy drinking can disrupt various metabolic processes (including those involved with blood glucose homeostasis) and could itself be a risk factor for developing Type 2 diabetes.10

Drinking can also increase the risks of a range of other diabetes-related health conditions, including serious cardiovascular and neurological issues.

Diabetic Ketoacidosis

Ketoacidosis is a serious and life-threatening complication of diabetes. Characterized by excessive levels of certain acids called ketone bodies (such as acetone, acetoacetate, and β-hydroxybutyrate) in the blood, this condition can develop when your body doesn’t have an adequate amount of insulin to allow blood sugar into your cells to use as energy. In an effort to account for this lack of insulin and energy, the liver may excessively convert circulating fatty acid molecules into an excessive ketone bodies, which can have severe health consequences. Ketoacidosis can result in symptoms such as thirst, frequent urination, fast or deep breathing, dry skin, flushed face, headache, nausea, fatigue, and stomach pain.9,11

Heavy alcohol consumption, such as 16 or more standard drinks per day, can increase the risk for ketoacidosis in diabetics, posing extreme health risks for heavy drinkers with diabetes.9,11

Alterations of Lipid Metabolism

Heavy alcohol consumption can worsen certain diabetes-related lipid abnormalities. For instance, alcohol consumption can result in elevated triglyceride levels, reduced levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), and elevated levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.9

Hypertriglyceridemia can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and pancreatitis. Such inflammation of the pancreas can be not only painful, but can additionally impair insulin production—further complicating blood sugar management issues for people with diabetes.9

Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in those with Type 2 diabetes. Relatively heavy alcohol consumption can also increase blood pressure, which can additionally increase the risk of someone developing of cardiovascular disease.9

Retinopathy

Heavy alcohol consumption may also increase a person’s risk for developing diabetic eye disease. Diabetic retinopathy is a common diabetic complication and leading cause of blindness in people who develop the issue. Retinopathy carries with it the possibility of permanent vision loss.11

Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy involves damage to delicate nerve fibers important for both muscle function and various sensations such as touch, pain, vibration, and temperature. It can result in uncomfortable symptoms such as tingling, burning, pain, and numbness, which most often occur in the legs or feet and tend to worsen at night. Neuropathy can be extremely dangerous for sufferers and can increase the risk of sustaining various cuts and abrasions on the limbs. Such can be progressive and sometimes become extremely infected before they are noticed.9

Diabetes and alcohol consumption are the two most common underlying causes of peripheral neuropathy. Although more research must be conducted on the impacts of diabetes and alcohol on neuropathy, various studies suggest that drinking and diabetes can compound or worsen the nerve-damaging potential of the other.9

Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Alcohol Use and Diabetes

Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

Depending on the severity of someone’s alcohol use disorder, they may choose to seek inpatient or an outpatient treatment. Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can be extremely painful and sometimes life-threatening, so if detox is needed, it is recommended to undergo treatment in a facility providing around-the-clock medical supervision.

From there, a more comprehensive treatment plan, which takes place in an inpatient or outpatient setting, helps individuals identify the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that led to addiction and teach them coping skills to recognize triggers, change their behaviors, and avoid relapse.

If you or a loved one struggle with alcohol misuse, you may be adversely impacting your diabetes and other health conditions. Reach out to American Addiction Centers (AAC) at . We have treatment centers scattered throughout the county. Talk to one of our knowledgeable admissions navigators, who can answer your questions, explain your options, and get you started on your path to recovery.

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