For many people, a glass of alcohol here and there does not pose a problem. However, for those with health conditions, such as diabetes, alcohol can affect blood sugar levels and pose a health risk.

Understanding what you are consuming and how alcohol influences blood glucose levels is particularly important for people with diabetes.

Fast facts on alcohol and diabetes:

  • Alcohol can interfere with blood sugar levels.
  • Excessive consumption can reduce the effectiveness of insulin.
  • People with diabetes should sip drinks slowly and not drink on an empty stomach.

Alcohol is a depressant; it is 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 and enters the bloodstream.

In an average person, the liver can breaks down roughly 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,kidneys, and skin in urine and sweat.

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, however, can impair the body.

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Alcoholic beverages can affect blood sugar in a variety of ways.

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.

Normal fasting blood sugar levels should range from 70-100 milligrams per deciliter. People who have untreated diabetes generally have a blood sugar level higher than 126 milligrams per deciliter.

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, and because alcohol can lead to situational unawareness of low blood sugar.

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

Other problems related to alcohol and diabetes

Alcohol's impact on blood sugar levels is not the only way it can effect someone with diabetes:

  • Alcohol can stimulate the appetite, encouraging overeating and therefore increasing blood sugar levels further.
  • Because of the calories in alcohol, regular consumption can make it difficult to shift additional weight.
  • Alcohol can reduce will power and increase the chance of making bad dietary choices.
  • Alcohol can interfere with some oral diabetes medications.
  • Alcohol can increase blood pressure.

Alcohol consumption guidelines

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

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People with diabetes should be sure to stay hydrated when consuming alcohol.

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.

Different alcohols vary in content and how they affect the blood sugar. The following are tables using information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showing the amount of carbs and sugar in alcohol:

Type Serving Carbs. (g) Sugars. (g)
Regular beer1 can or bottle12.640.00
Strong beer1 can or bottle0.960.00
Type Serving Carbs. (g) Sugars. (g)
Red wine5 fl oz3.840.91
White wine5 fl oz3.821.41
Type Serving Carbs. (g) Sugars. (g)
Whiskey1.5 fl oz0.040.04
Vodka1.5 fl oz0.00.0
Gin1.5 fl oz0.00.0
rum1.5 fl oz0.00.0
Type Serving Carbs. (g) Sugars. (g)
Daiquiri2 fl oz4.163.35
Pina colada4.5 fl oz31.9531.49
Whiskey sour3.5 fl oz13.5913.55
Tequila sunrise6.8 fl oz23.84-

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 women who drink moderately had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes when compared with women non-drinkers. The study had a number of limitations, which might be altering the perception of impact. However, when it comes to alcohol, those with blood sugar problems should always remain cautious. It is best to follow daily recommended consumption limits.