Living with diabetes blog

Alcohol and diabetes: Drinking safely

By Nancy Klobassa Davidson, R.N. and Peggy Moreland, R.N., C.D.E. December 9, 2011

Patients often ask whether they can drink alcohol. Most people with diabetes are aware of how different foods affect their blood glucose, but aren't sure if alcohol and diabetes is safe. The American Diabetes Association recommends that you ask yourself three basic questions:

  • Is your diabetes under control?
  • Check with your healthcare provider. Do you have health problems that alcohol can make worse, such as diabetic nerve damage or high blood pressure?
  • Do you know how alcohol can affect you and your diabetes?

When you drink an alcoholic beverage, the alcohol moves quickly into the bloodstream without being metabolized in your stomach. Within five minutes of having a drink, there's enough alcohol in your bloodstream to measure. Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, and for the average person it takes approximately two hours to metabolize one drink. If you drink alcohol faster than your body metabolizes it, the excess alcohol moves through your bloodstream to other parts of your body, particularly your brain. If you've ever gotten a "buzz" when drinking alcohol, that's why.

If you're on insulin, or certain oral diabetes medications, such as a sulfonylurea (glipizide, glyburide) or meglitinide (Prandin) that stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin, drinking alcohol can cause a dangerous low blood sugar because your liver has to work to remove the alcohol from your blood instead of its main job to regulate your blood sugar.

  • Consult your physician and follow his/her advice — alcohol can worsen diabetes complications.
  • Monitor your blood sugar before, during, and after drinking alcohol. Remember to check before going to bed.
  • Never drink alcohol on an empty stomach — food slows down the absorption of alcohol into the blood stream.
  • Avoid binge drinking — The American Diabetes Association suggests men have no more than two drinks a day, and women one, the same guidelines as for those without diabetes.
  • Be prepared — Always carry along glucose tablets or another source of sugar. Glucagon shots will not work in this case.
  • Don't mix alcohol and exercise — physical activity and alcohol will increase your chances of getting a low blood sugar.

The symptoms of too much alcohol and low blood sugar can be very similar, i.e. sleepiness, dizziness, and disorientation. You don't want others to mistakenly confuse hypoglycemia for drunkenness. Alcohol and diabetes is another reminder that it's always a good idea to wear a diabetes medical I.D.

- Peggy

Dec. 09, 2011