• September 7, 2016 •

It is not uncommon to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or to have drinks after work with friends. Alcohol consumption is very prevalent in the United States.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in 2014:

  • 87.6 percent of people age 18 and older reported drinking alcohol at some point in their lifetime
  • 71 percent reported drinking in the past year
  • 56.9 percent reported drinking in the past month

For many people, a glass of alcohol here and there does not pose a problem. For those with certain health conditions such as diabetes, however, alcohol can affect blood sugar levels and pose a health risk. It is important for them to understand what alcohol is and how it affects blood sugar levels.

alcoholWhat is alcohol?
The way that alcohol affects the body differs from person to person.

Alcohol is made from the fermentation of yeast, sugars, and starches. Fruits, vegetables, additives, and other by-products are added to the alcohol to produce different colors, strengths, tastes, and flavors.

It is a depressant and classed as a “sedative-hypnotic drug” because it depresses the central nervous system. Every organ in the body can be affected by alcohol. Once consumed, it is rapidly absorbed by the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream.

For an average person, the liver can typically break down one standard drink of alcohol per hour. Excess alcohol moves throughout the body. The amount not broken down by the liver is removed by the lungs and kidneys in urine and sweat.

Alcohol’s effect on the body

How alcohol affects a person’s body depends on how much they consume. At low doses, alcohol can act as a stimulant. People may feel happy, or become talkative.

Drinking too much alcohol can impair the body and lead to:

  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Unsteady movements
  • Blurred vision
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Shallow breathing
  • Memory loss and confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Passing out
  • Coma
  • Death

The way a person reacts to alcohol is also influenced by other factors, including:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Physical condition – heavier and more muscular people tend to have more fat and muscle to absorb the alcohol consumed
  • Amount of food consumed before drinking – food dilutes the alcohol and slows its absorption into the bloodstream
  • How quickly the alcohol is consumed
  • How often the person’s drinks – people who drink regularly are often able to handle their alcohol better than people who don’t usually drink
  • Use of drugs or prescription medicinesFamily history of alcohol problems
  • Health

Alcohol and blood sugar levels

A person’s overall health plays a big role in how they respond to alcohol. People with diabetes or other blood sugar problems must be careful when consuming alcohol.

Alcohol consumption can interfere with blood sugar as well as the hormones needed to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Frequent heavy drinkers can wipe out their energy storage in a few hours.

Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can reduce the overall effectiveness of insulin. This results in high blood sugar levels. Many people with alcoholic liver disease also have either glucose intolerance or diabetes.

According to the Mayo Clinic, normal fasting blood sugar levels should range from 70-100 milligrams per deciliter. People who have diabetes generally have a blood sugar level higher than 126 milligrams per deciliter.

Uncontrolled diabetes increases the risk of:

  • Heart and blood vessel disease
  • Nerve damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Eye damage
  • Skin conditions
  • Foot damage

People with diabetes have to be very careful when it comes to drinking alcohol. It is a good idea that they talk to their doctor so that they thoroughly understand the risks involved.

Some medicines should not be taken with alcohol. People with diabetes should make sure to pay attention to any potential warnings.

Alcohol consumption can lead to dangerously low blood sugar. This is because the liver has to work to remove the alcohol from the blood instead of managing blood sugar levels.

Symptoms of low blood sugar are similar to the symptoms of too much alcohol, including:

  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness
  • Blurry vision
  • Headaches
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Headaches
  • Unconsciousness

Alcohol consumption guidelines

People with diabetes who plan on drinking should check their blood sugar levels before and up to 24 hours after drinking. They should also check levels before going to bed to ensure they are stable.

According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one standard drink in the U.S. is equal to 14.0 grams (0.6 ounces) of pure alcohol. Drinks such as beer and wine can have an alcohol content of anywhere from 2-20 percent. Spirits or liquor can contain 40-50 percent or even more alcohol.

Below is the alcohol content in common alcoholic drinks according to the CDC. Each is equal to one drink.

  • 12-ounces of beer – 5 percent alcohol content
  • 8-ounces of malt liquor – 7 percent alcohol content
  • 5-ounces of wine – 12 percent alcohol content
  • 1.5-ounces or a “shot” of 80-proof spirits or liquor – 40 percent alcohol content

Tips for people with blood sugar problems

People with blood sugar problems should avoid mixed drinks and cocktails. These drinks are often full of sugar and empty calories and will increase blood sugar levels.

.The American Diabetes Association recommend the following for people with diabetes when they drink:

  • Women should not have more than one drink per day
  • Men should not have more than two drinks per day
  • Do not drink on an empty stomach or when blood sugar levels are low
  • Do not replace food with alcohol in a meal plan – do not count alcohol in a food plan as a carbohydrate choice
  • Sip drinks slowly to make them last
  • Keep hydrated with zero-calorie drinks like water or diet soda
  • Try a light beer or wine spritzer
  • Be wary of heavy craft beers, as these can have twice as much alcohol and calories as lighter beers
  • Choose calorie-free drink mixers like diet soda or diet tonic water
  • Most people with diabetes can enjoy an occasional alcoholic drink. Each alcoholic drink takes around 1-1.5 hours to finish processing in the liver. The more alcohol consumed, the bigger the risk of low blood sugar.
  • Low blood sugar symptoms can suddenly appear, and can be dangerous if the drinker is not prepared. It is a good idea to eat carbohydrates before drinking alcohol to help keep blood sugar levels steady.
  • People with diabetes can carry glucose tabs in case of an emergency and should check their blood sugar levels regularly. They should also remember that some diabetes medicine may not work if too much alcohol is consumed.
  • A recent study found that moderate drinkers had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes when compared with non-drinkers. This type of research provides an interesting twist to the notion that people with diabetes should not drink.

When it comes to alcohol, those with blood sugar problems should always remain cautious, however. It is best to follow daily recommended consumption limits.

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