How does alcohol affect diabetes?

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For healthy adults, some research suggests an occasional adult beverage provides heart health benefits.

But what if you have diabetes?

According to Andrea McCarty, Mon Health Diabetes Education Coordinator, you may not have to give up your favorite glass of red wine just yet—but you should be well-informed and clear it with your doctor, first.

Think before you drink.

“Drinking alcohol can have different outcomes in those with diabetes depending on medical history and current medications,” she says. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to consuming alcohol with diabetes, so the first step is consulting with your doctor about whether or not it’s safe for you.”

If you have diabetes, McCarty says it’s critical to understand the effect alcohol may have on blood glucose.

“Contrary to what most believe, consuming alcohol may lower glucose,” says McCarty. “This is not likely to be noticed when drinking in moderation or in those who are not on medication.”

If you’re on insulin or other glucose-lowering agents, however, McCarty says consuming alcohol in large quantities could lower blood glucose to dangerous levels.

“If excess drinking occurs, those on metformin should use caution,” she warns. “Binge drinking can lead to lactic acidosis with metformin use, which can be fatal.”

If you choose to drink, take precautions.

For those with diabetes who have been medically cleared for moderate alcohol consumption, McCarty cites current recommendations by the American Diabetes Association that suggest no more than one drink per day for women, and two for men.

“Current recommendations define one drink as 1.5 ounces of liquor, 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer,” she says.

McCarty says people with diabetes, especially those on insulin or other glucose-lowering agents, should never drink alcohol on an empty stomach and should always have someone with them in case of a medical emergency.

“If you have diabetes and you choose to drink, make sure that someone with you is aware of the symptoms of hypoglycemia, which is often confused with drunkenness, as well as how to treat low blood glucose,” says McCarty.

Beginning stages of hypoglycemia may include feeling dizzy, sleepy or anxious, she adds. Without prompt medical treatment, hypoglycemia can cause confusion, blurred vision, seizures and loss of consciousness.

To avoid hypoglycemia while drinking with diabetes, the American Diabetes Association recommends taking additional precautions, including:

  • Not drinking when blood glucose is already low
  • Always eating food with your drink
  • When in public, wearing an I.D. that notes you have diabetes in the case of an emergency
  • Keeping in mind that craft beers may have double the amount of alcohol than light beer
  • For mixed drinks, opting for calorie-free add-ins such as club soda or diet tonic water
  • Checking your blood glucose before you drink, while drinking, before bed, throughout the night and several times within the 24-hour timespan that you drink alcohol

If you have diabetes and choose to drink, talk with your healthcare provider about whether or not alcohol is safe for you.

To learn more about alcohol and diabetes, visit the American Diabetes Association website.