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The Link Between Alcohol Abuse and Diabetes

The Link Between Alcohol Abuse and DiabetesWhat is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease that occurs when your blood glucose, also called blood sugar, is too high. High levels of glucose in your blood can cause serious health problems, including heart disease and stroke, kidney disease, nerve damage (called diabetic neuropathy), eye disease, and foot problems.1

There are two major types of diabetes related to blood sugar. Type-1 is usually diagnosed in children and young adults and is a result of the body not making insulin, the hormone that transports glucose into cells for use as energy.2 Type-2 is the most common form of diabetes and arises from the body not responding to insulin (referred to as insulin resistance). It occurs most commonly in middle-aged and older people and is more likely if you are overweight or obese.3

Can Alcoholism Cause Diabetes?

Excessive alcohol consumption increases your risk of developing a chronic inflammation of the pancreas called pancreatitis.4 This condition leads to irreversible damage that includes destruction of β-cells, the specialized cells in the pancreas responsible for the production, storage, and release of insulin.5 One of the consequences of pancreatitis is an impaired ability of the pancreas to secrete insulin, which can potentially lead to type-2 diabetes.

Can I Drink if I Have Diabetes?

Many people with diabetes want to know if it is safe to drink alcohol. The short answer is yes, but you must practice caution when drinking. It is important that you only drink when your blood sugar is well controlled, and under no circumstances should you drink in excess. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), women with diabetes should not drink more than one serving of alcohol (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 ½ ounces of distilled spirits) a day, while men with diabetes should not drink more than two servings per day.6

Prior to having a drink, the ADA suggests that you ask yourself the following 3 questions:6

  • Is my diabetes in good control?
  • Does my doctor agree that I can have alcohol?
  • Do I know how alcohol can affect me and my blood sugar?

If you can answer “yes” to all 3 questions, then it is probably okay to have a drink.

It is important to remember that alcohol can cause hypoglycemia after drinking.7 If you are going to consume alcohol, monitor your blood glucose before drinking, while drinking, and after drinking (for up to 12 hours). The symptoms of hypoglycemia, which are similar to those from consuming too much alcohol, can include:7

  • Sleepiness
  • Dizziness
  • Disorientation

You do not want to confuse hypoglycemia for drunkenness, as this may prevent you from seeking the proper assistance and treatment needed for a hypoglycemic episode. It is also important to always wear a medical ID bracelet identifying that you have diabetes. This will alert others that what may appear to be symptoms of intoxication can actually be signs of hypoglycemia.

Alcoholism and Diabetes

If you currently have diabetes drinking alcohol can be harmful. Alcohol abuse in people with diabetes increases the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, eye problems, and nerve damage.8 If you have difficulty managing your blood sugar levels, you should strongly consider whether it is safe to drink alcohol.

If you are an alcoholic, it is significantly more difficult to keep your blood sugar levels in check. This is because alcoholic drinks contain excessive amounts of carbohydrates and sugar, which cause dramatic spikes in blood sugar. Alcohol is also high in calories and can lead to weight gain that decreases the sensitivity and production of insulin, consequently making it more difficult to control blood sugar.9

Treatment Options

Alcoholism in a diabetic can lead to extremely dangerous consequences. Studies have shown that excessive alcohol consumption negatively impacts adherence to diabetes treatment and adversely impacts the course of diabetes, resulting in increased morbidity and mortality.10 Drinking affects the effectiveness of diabetes medications and can cause liver damage, putting you at further risk.11 While it is usually fine to drink small amounts of alcohol with diabetes, if you are battling alcoholism it is essential that you seek professional help immediately. Only with proper treatment for your alcoholism, together with healthy lifestyle changes, you will be better positioned to avoid serious complications of diabetes.

Depending on the severity of your alcoholism, treatment can be done on an inpatient or an outpatient basis. 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.

Sources

  1. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2016). Preventing Diabetes Problems.
  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2017). Type 1 Diabetes.
  3. (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2017). Type 2 Diabetes.
  4. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2017). Symptoms & Causes of Pancreatitis.
  5. Kim, J.Y., Lee, D.Y., Lee, Y.J., Park, K.J., Kim, K.H., Kim, J.W., & Kim, W.H. (2015). Chronic alcohol consumption potentiates the development of diabetes through pancreatic β-cell dysfunction. World Journal of Biological Chemistry, 6(1), 1-15.
  6. American Diabetes Association. (2014). Alcohol.
  7. The Mayo Clinic. (2018). Diabetic hypoglycemia.
  8. National Diabetes Education Program. (2017). Living a Balanced Life with Diabetes: Help for Tobacco and Alcohol Users.
  9. Ye, J. (2013). Mechanisms of insulin resistance in obesity. Frontiers of Medicine, 7(1), 14-24.
  10. Engler, P.A., Ramsey, S.E., & Smith, R.J. (2013). Alcohol use of diabetes patients: the need for assessment and intervention. Acta Diabetologica, 50(2), 93-99.
  11. DeFronzo, R., Fleming, G.A., Chen, K., Bicsak, T.A. (2016). Metformin-associated lactic acidosis: Current perspectives on causes and risk. Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental, 65(2), 20-29.
Last Updated on October 23, 2019
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Michael Kaliszewski, PhD
Dr. Michael Kaliszewski is a freelance science writer with over 15 years of experience as a research scientist in both academia and industry.
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