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Drinking Alcohol and Diabetes

Alcohol Can Make Some Diabetic Problems Worse

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Updated March 27, 2014

Some people who have diabetes can safely drink moderate amounts of alcohol, but for others any amount of alcohol intake can have very negative health consequences.

There are some circumstances under which diabetics should not drink alcohol in any amount. The key for those with diabetes is to understand what conditions can be worsen if they consume alcohol.

When Drinking Is Harmful

According to the American Diabetes Association, drinking alcohol is a poor choice if diabetics have the following conditions:

  • Nerve damage in the arms or legs.
  • Diabetic eye disease.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High levels of triglycerides.
Alcohol can damage nerve cells; even light drinking can cause nerve damage. For diabetics with nerve damage drinking can increase the pain, numbness, tingling or burning sensation associated with diabetic nerve damage.

For diabetics with eye disease symptoms, heavy drinking can make the condition worse and heavy drinking is defined as three or more drinks during one day. Diabetics who also have high blood pressure should also not drink alcohol.

Alcohol can also increase the amount of triglycerides in the blood. Even very light drinking, defined as two drinks a week, can increase triglyceride levels. Diabetics who have high triglycerides should not drink alcohol at all.

Risking Low Blood Sugar

Diabetics who take medication -- insulin shots or oral diabetes pills -- run the risk of low blood sugar levels if they drink alcohol.

When blood sugar levels drop, the liver usually begins to produce glucose from stored carbohydrates to compensate. But drinking alcohol blocks the liver's ability to produce glucose.

The liver treats alcohol as a toxin and works to rid the body of alcohol as quickly as possible. The liver will not produce glucose again until the alcohol has been processed and cleared from the body.

The American Diabetes Association recommends that diabetics never drink on an empty stomach in order to protect themselves from low blood sugar -- drinking only after a meal or a snack.

The association also recommends that diabetics who have had something to drink check their blood sugar before going to sleep. And "eat a snack before you retire to avoid a low blood sugar reaction while you sleep."

How Much Alcohol Is Okay?

Diabetics taking medication to control blood sugar levels should first ask their doctor if it is okay to drink alcohol with their specific medication.

For those taking medication, it is recommended to limit alcohol intake to one drink for women and two drinks for men. Even two ounces of alcohol can interfere with the liver's ability to produce glucose.

Because exercise can also decrease blood sugar levels -- because the liver takes glucose from the blood and sends it to the muscles -- drinking immediately following exercise is not recommended.

For diabetics trying to control weight gain, drinking alcohol is not a wise choice. Alcohol quickly adds calories to the diet without adding any nutritional value. Even two light beers can add 200 calories.

For type 2 diabetics, who control their diabetes with diet and exercise, rather than medication, drinking alcohol is less of a risk factor for low blood sugar.

Source: American Diabetes Association.

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