Alcohol is a common social lubricant that many people enjoy, but for those with diabetes, it can be a tricky substance to navigate.
While moderate alcohol consumption can have some health benefits, it can also cause low blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. This can be dangerous and even life-threatening if not managed properly.
In this article, we’ll explore why alcohol affects blood sugar levels in people with diabetes and what steps you can take to enjoy alcohol safely.
So grab a drink (or not) and let’s dive in!
Why Does Alcohol Cause Low Blood Sugar In Diabetes?
When alcohol is consumed, it is broken down in the liver into substances that can block the liver from producing new glucose. This can cause blood sugar levels to drop rapidly, leading to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
For people with diabetes, this can be especially dangerous as their bodies may not be able to regulate blood sugar levels as effectively as those without diabetes. Additionally, if alcohol is consumed without food, the liver may choose to metabolize the alcohol over maintaining blood sugar levels, further increasing the risk of hypoglycemia.
Furthermore, certain diabetes medications, such as insulin and sulfonylureas, can also increase the risk of low blood sugar when combined with alcohol.
It’s important to note that the risk for low blood sugar can remain for hours after consuming alcohol, especially if a large amount was consumed or if exercise was involved.
Understanding Blood Sugar Levels And Diabetes
Blood sugar levels play a crucial role in diabetes management. When you have diabetes, your body either cannot produce enough insulin or cannot use it effectively, leading to high blood sugar levels. A normal blood sugar level is less than 140 mg/dL (7.8 mmol/L), while a reading of more than 200 mg/dL (11.1 mmol/L) after two hours means you have diabetes. A reading between 140 and 199 mg/dL (7.8 mmol/L and 11.0 mmol/L) indicates you have prediabetes.
The A1C test measures your average blood sugar level over the past 2 or 3 months. An A1C below 5.7% is normal, between 5.7 and 6.4% indicates you have prediabetes, and 6.5% or higher indicates you have diabetes.
Managing blood glucose levels is essential for people with diabetes, as high blood sugar levels can lead to long-term complications. Blood glucose levels can be affected by various factors, including food intake, physical activity, and medication.
When alcohol is consumed, it can cause blood sugar levels to drop rapidly, leading to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). For people with diabetes, this can be especially dangerous as their bodies may not be able to regulate blood sugar levels as effectively as those without diabetes. Additionally, certain diabetes medications can increase the risk of low blood sugar when combined with alcohol.
It’s important to monitor blood sugar levels regularly and to take appropriate precautions when consuming alcohol, such as eating food and avoiding excessive amounts. If you experience symptoms of hypoglycemia, such as shakiness, dizziness, or confusion, seek medical attention immediately.
How Alcohol Affects Blood Sugar Levels
Alcohol consumption can cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate in various ways. While moderate amounts of alcohol may cause blood sugar to rise, excess alcohol can actually decrease blood sugar levels, sometimes to dangerous levels, especially for people with type 1 diabetes.
This is because alcohol contains “empty calories” that do not provide the body with energy but must be processed by the body. As a result, the body may prioritize metabolizing alcohol over processing sugars, leading to an increase in blood sugar levels while the alcohol is being metabolized.
However, as mentioned earlier, alcohol can also block the liver from producing new glucose, which can cause blood sugar levels to drop rapidly. This effect can be exacerbated if a person with diabetes consumes alcohol without eating food at the same time.
Additionally, alcoholic drinks can contain high amounts of sugar, which can contribute to weight gain and tooth decay. For example, a pint of cider can contain as many as five teaspoons of sugar – almost as much as the NHS recommended daily limit. This high sugar content in alcoholic drinks can also increase blood sugar levels and contribute to the development of alcohol-related diabetes.
Risk Factors For Low Blood Sugar In Diabetes
There are several risk factors that can contribute to low blood sugar in people with diabetes. These include taking insulin or oral medications that stimulate insulin secretion, not eating or drinking enough carbohydrates, fasting, increasing physical activity beyond your usual routine, being sick, and drinking too much alcohol without enough food.
When you take medications that lower your blood glucose level, such as insulin or sulfonylureas, it’s important to be aware of the potential for hypoglycemia. Not eating enough carbohydrates or skipping meals can also cause low blood sugar levels, as can fasting for medical procedures or other reasons.
Increasing physical activity can also lower blood glucose levels for up to 24 hours after the activity. This is because exercise uses up glucose in the body, which can cause blood sugar levels to drop.
Being sick can also increase the risk of low blood sugar, as you may not be able to eat as much or keep food down. This can cause blood glucose levels to drop rapidly.
Finally, drinking too much alcohol without enough food can also cause low blood sugar levels. Alcohol makes it harder for the body to regulate blood glucose levels, especially if you haven’t eaten in a while. Additionally, alcohol can mask the symptoms of low blood sugar, making it more difficult to recognize and treat.
Symptoms Of Low Blood Sugar And How To Manage Them
Low blood sugar, also known as hypoglycemia, can cause a variety of symptoms that can vary from person to person. It’s important to know your own signs of low blood sugar so that you can manage it effectively. Common symptoms of low blood sugar may include:
– Fast heartbeat
– Nervousness or anxiety
– Irritability or confusion
If you have diabetes and experience low blood sugar, it’s important to check your blood sugar levels frequently to see if they are low and treat them accordingly. If you have hypoglycemia unawareness, meaning you have had low blood sugar without feeling or noticing symptoms, you may need to check your blood sugar more often to prevent severe lows.
If you experience severe low blood sugar, which is considered below 55 mg/dL, the 15-15 rule may not work. You may need to seek medical attention and use injectable glucagon to treat the low blood sugar. It’s important to have a glucagon kit available and for those around you to know how to use it in case of an emergency.
To manage low blood sugar, it’s recommended to consume 15 grams of carbohydrates such as juice, hard candy, or glucose tablets and check your blood sugar after 15 minutes. If your levels are still low, consume another serving of carbohydrates and repeat until your blood sugar is at least 70 mg/dL. It’s also important to eat a meal or snack following the treatment to prevent further drops in blood sugar.
It’s crucial for those around you, such as family members, friends, co-workers, teachers, coaches, and other people you may be around often, to know how to test your blood sugar and treat severely low blood sugar before it happens. Wearing a medical ID bracelet or necklace can also be helpful in case of an emergency.
Tips For Safe Alcohol Consumption With Diabetes
If you have diabetes and choose to consume alcohol, it’s important to do so in a safe and responsible manner. Here are some tips to help you avoid the risk of hypoglycemia:
1. Limit your alcohol consumption: As mentioned earlier, the recommended daily intake of alcohol for people with diabetes is no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. Stick to these guidelines and avoid binge drinking.
2. Drink slowly and with food: Drinking on an empty stomach can cause blood sugar levels to drop rapidly. It’s important to consume alcohol with food, and to drink slowly to avoid consuming too much too quickly.
3. Avoid sugary drinks: Sugary mixed drinks, sweet wines, and cordials can cause blood sugar levels to spike, followed by a rapid drop. Stick to low-sugar options such as liquor mixed with water, club soda, or diet soft drinks.
4. Monitor your blood sugar levels: Check your blood sugar levels before and after drinking alcohol, and monitor it closely throughout the night. If your blood sugar levels start to drop, consume a snack or glucose tablets to bring it back up.
5. Wear a medical alert piece of jewelry: Always wear a medical alert piece of jewelry that indicates you have diabetes in case of emergency.
6. Inform your friends: Let your friends know about your diabetes and how they can help you if needed. Designate a non-drinker in your group who can watch out for everyone’s safety.
7. Don’t drink and drive: Never drive if you (or your driver) have been drinking.
Remember, drinking alcohol with diabetes requires extra caution and attention to ensure your blood sugar levels remain stable. Talk to your doctor about your drinking habits and they can provide you with personalized tips and advice for safe alcohol consumption with diabetes.
When To Seek Medical Attention For Low Blood Sugar And Alcohol Consumption.
If you have diabetes and have consumed alcohol, it’s important to monitor your blood sugar levels closely. If your blood sugar drops below 70 mg/dL, you should follow the “15-15 rule,” which involves consuming 15 grams of carbohydrates and rechecking your blood sugar levels after 15 minutes. If your levels remain too low, repeat these steps until your blood sugar level is above 70 mg/dL. If your blood sugar level is too low to treat with the 15-15 rule safely, you may require glucagon injections.
If you experience severe symptoms of hypoglycemia, such as confusion, seizures, or loss of consciousness, seek medical attention immediately. It’s also important to note that the symptoms of hypoglycemia can be similar to those of being drunk, making it difficult to tell the two apart. If you often have hypoglycemia unawareness, a condition in which you don’t recognize when your blood sugar is low, drinking alcohol becomes especially risky.