Diabetes and alcohol – what you need to know

We explain how alcohol affects your blood sugar levels so you can continue enjoying a drink without risking your health.

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“With Type 2 diabetes can I drink alcohol?” is a common question asked by people with diabetes. Many people enjoy relaxing and socialising with friends over a glass of wine or a beer, and this doesn’t need to stop if you have Type 2 diabetes. Any alcohol intake should be in moderation and within the government’s recommendation on weekly units. Here, we explain how alcohol affects your blood sugar levels and what precautions you may need to take so that you can continue to enjoy a drink without risking your health.

Alcohol and its effects on blood sugar (glucose) and risk of hypos

The impact alcohol has on blood glucose levels can be confusing. In some instances, when alcohol consumption is low, there is an increase in blood sugar, however, in other circumstances, particularly when larger amounts of alcohol have been drunk, this can cause your blood sugar levels to decrease.

Alcohol reduces the livers ability to produce glucose (sugar), and therefore people often experience low blood sugar after having a drink. After a few drinks, for people without diabetes, symptoms of low blood sugar include a headache – and this is what’s recognised as a hangover but for people with Type 2 diabetes, there’s an increased risk of having a hypo. If you have a drink in the evening, this hypo could occur while you’re asleep. It’s advisable, therefore, to eat something before you go to sleep to make up for the expected drop in your blood sugar. The best way to avoid having a hypo is to test your blood sugar whenever possible, you can then take any necessary action. It’s not uncommon for alcohol to stimulate your appetite, so you should avoid overeating as this can also impact your blood sugar.

 

Interaction with diabetes medication

Alcohol can lower your blood sugar levels. If you are taking medication that lowers your blood sugar, like sulphonylureas or insulin, then the combined effect of diabetes medications and alcohol can result in a hypo. If you are consuming alcohol while taking these medications, talk to your diabetes care team about how you can avoid feeling unwell afterwards.

 

Government guidelines on alcohol

To avoid health risks that are associated with drinking alcohol, the government advise that no more than 14 units of alcohol are drunk a week on a regular basis. Indeed, they also advise that it’s best to spread these units evenly over a few days, but to have several drink-free days per week. Depending on the type of alcoholic beverage that you’re drinking, 14 units can look quite different. It’s around 6 pints of beer per week, or 6 medium glasses of wine. Depending on the strength of the spirit that you’re drinking, there’s one unit of alcohol per single (25 ml) measure of 40% Alcohol by Volume (ABV) vodka. To ensure that you carefully moderate how many units you drink, it’s really important to check the size of the glass, and also the type of alcohol that you’re drinking. There’s a great website – www.drinkaware.co.uk – to help you do this.

 

Excess alcohol

Drinking excess alcohol is dangerous for anyone, regardless of whether they have Type 2 diabetes or not, however, it is particularly dangerous for those with Type 2 diabetes, even if their blood sugar is well controlled as a severe hypoglycaemic episode can occur. Some of the effects of alcohol are similar to those when you have a hypo (dizziness and nausea, for example), so it can be difficult for people with diabetes to identify if they are having a hypo or not.

Excess drinking can lead to increases in blood pressure, weight gain (both are important risk factors associated with heart disease)  and nerve damage. These may already be issues for people with Type 2 diabetes and so drinking excessively can cause further risk to your health.

 

Type 2 diabetes and alcohol – fast facts

If you have Type 2 diabetes, here are some fast facts to remember to help you stay safe when consuming alcohol:

  • Drink in moderation and as per government guidance
  • Have a meal alongside any drinks to limit the risk of having a hypo
  • Avoid high-sugar drinks (like sweet sherries, sweet wines and liqueurs), and mix spirits with diet or sugar-free mixers
  • Understand that some alcoholic beverages have a higher sugar content than others
  • Measure your blood sugar before and after having a drink so you can moderate any food consumption accordingly

 

Frequently asked questions

Will drinking lead to weight gain?

All alcoholic drinks contain calories – but some types of drink contain more than others. If you are trying to lose weight, you may prefer to try lower calorie drinks like prosecco and wine. Also, ensure you choose low-calorie or ‘diet’ mixers with any spirits. Reducing your existing alcohol intake may also help you lose weight.

Can alcohol make me depressed?

Some people feel that alcohol can help them relax and more able to deal with stress, however, it can also make some feelings of depression worse. If you are struggling with your emotions, talk to your healthcare professional team about this as they can help.

I’m taking insulin once a day – can I still have a drink?

In moderation, and with careful blood sugar monitoring, you can still enjoy an alcoholic drink if you are using insulin injections. Talk to your healthcare professional team about when to test your blood sugar and what symptoms to look out for.