Drink to That: How to Safely Consume Alcohol with Diabetes
By Cheryl Alkon
We’re already thinking about carbs and calories all the time, and adding alcohol into the mix makes things more complex. Experts share their best advice on how to safely drink when living with diabetes.
People who choose to drink alcohol typically do so for a few main reasons: to cope with challenges, to be sociable, or just because they enjoy having a drink. But while alcohol may make some people feel more comfortable, drinking can be especially complicated for people with diabetes. If you’re choosing to drink with friends or loved ones, let’s talk about how you can do so safely with diabetes.
First, alcohol is a drug, and it can be highly addictive. If you don’t drink now, there’s no reason to start. In fact, avoiding alcohol is the healthiest choice for people with or without diabetes. Drinking more than is healthy for the body has been linked to issues in the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, and immune system and is associated with several kinds of cancer, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking is also connected to other health problems, such as unintentional injuries (car accidents, falls, drownings), domestic violence, alcohol use disorders, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So, with all that said, how can you best manage your diabetes if you choose to drink?
What happens in the body when you drink?
Your liver works to create glucose when your blood sugar levels are low, but it also processes any alcohol present in your body, says Sandra Arevalo, a certified diabetes care and education specialist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. More specifically, “Alcohol gets broken down by your liver. The liver is also in charge of making sugar when your blood sugar levels are low, by converting stored glycogen into glucose, and releasing that glucose into your bloodstream. When you drink, your liver is busy processing the alcohol and has a hard time producing glucose,” she said.
This process “puts people with diabetes at high risk of low blood sugar when they drink,” Arevalo said. “If you are on basal insulin, you may not make enough glucose for the amount of basal insulin you have taken, and you may suffer a hypoglycemic episode.” This applies primarily to people with type 1 diabetes, but people with type 2 diabetes are still at risk for low blood glucose levels when they drink.
What’s in a drink?
That’s a tricky question. What you are drinking and how much of it you choose to drink can make a big difference. Like most things with diabetes, there aren’t simple answers.
According to the CDC, moderate drinking is defined as two drinks or less per day for men, or one drink or less per day for women. The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends one drink or fewer per day for people of any gender. It is illegal for people under 21 to drink alcohol in the United States.
What does the CDC classify as “a drink?” One drink contains 14 grams, or 0.6 ounces, of pure alcohol, which normally equates to 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor or spirits such as gin, rum, vodka or whiskey.
What influences your intoxication?
Several factors – including diabetes medications, food, and exercise – can all make things even more complicated, said Carrie S. Swift, a dietician and spokesperson with the Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists. “Overall, alcohol intake leads to less predictable blood glucose whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes,” she said. But “the impact of alcohol on blood glucose isn’t always the same.”
This can be caused by:
Carbohydrate content of drinks: Beer and sweet wines contain a lot of carbohydrates, and can increase your blood sugar level despite the alcohol content. On the other hand, quickly cutting down your intake of these drinks, or quickly making the switch to dry wine or spirits, can carry a high risk of hypoglycemia.
Diabetes drugs: Insulin and sulfonylurea medications such as glipizide, glyburide, and glimepiride – all of which help to lower blood glucose levels – “are more likely to cause low blood glucose when alcohol is consumed,” said Swift. Insulin and alcohol work similarly whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. If you take metformin, pay attention to these specific symptoms when you are drinking: weakness, fatigue, slow heart rate, muscle pain, shortness of breath, or dark urine. “Excessive alcohol intake while taking metformin may increase the risk of a rare, but dangerous condition, called lactic acidosis. If you have these symptoms – get medical help right away,” she said. There are no specific or predictable ways that blood glucose levels react when taking other oral diabetes medications or GLP-1 medications, Swift added.
Food: “If you drink on an empty stomach, you are more likely to experience hypoglycemia,” said Swift. Yet, eating while drinking “may also increase your blood glucose, especially if you eat more than usual or make less healthy food choices when you drink.”
Exercise: If you are physically active either before or after drinking alcohol, it can cause your blood sugars to drop and lead to hypoglycemia.
What and how are you drinking?
If you have diabetes and choose to drink, what should you keep in mind?
Alcoholic drinks can have as much added sugar as some desserts, so think about what kinds of drinks you are having. “It’s best not to choose alcohol mixed with punches or soft drink mixers, such as Pepsi, Sprite, or Coke, daiquiris, margaritas, or sweetened liquors like Kahlua or Bailey’s Irish Cream,” said Swift. Regular beer and sweet wines are also higher in carbohydrates. “These drinks not only add carbohydrate, but excess calories from the added sugars,” she said.
If you have a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), use it. While you are drinking, you can see where your glucose is at all times and if it drops quickly. If you don’t have a CGM, “test your blood sugar more often,” said Arevalo. “Mainly if you are not feeling well, you want to know if your sugar is dropping, or if you are getting drunk. Even though both feel equally bad, you will want to know if your sugars are low so you can correct them quickly.”
Never drink on an empty stomach. Instead, “Have a good meal before or during drinking,” said Arevalo. But know the carb count of what you are eating and work with your healthcare professional to determine how to take medication for that meal along with the alcohol you are consuming.
Exercise and alcohol can make your numbers plummet. “Avoid drinking while dancing or exercising,” said Arevalo. “Physical activity helps to reduce blood sugar levels, and if the liver is not able to keep up with the production of glucose, the risk of hypoglycemia is even higher.”
Have your supplies handy, such as a hypoglycemia preparedness kit. Always bring your blood glucose testing kit and enough supplies for you to test frequently. It’s a good idea to have extra test strips, alcohol swabs, lancets, as well as fast-acting forms of glucose, including emergency glucagon in case your blood sugar level doesn’t come up with food or glucose.
If you take basal insulin in the evening, it’s not an easy answer on what to do if you plan to consume alcohol that evening, said Swift. “Depending on what type of diabetes the person has, and other factors, the results of drinking and taking a long-acting insulin before going out, may contribute to a different result,” she said. If you have type 1 and you take your usual amount of long-acting insulin and then you drink alcohol, “It may contribute to delayed hypoglycemia when drinking too much alcohol,” she said. If you have type 2 diabetes and are overweight or have significant insulin resistance, “Taking your usual amount of long-acting insulin may be a good strategy to avoid high blood glucose numbers,” she said. “No matter what your type of diabetes, frequent blood glucose checking will help you take the right action to avoid high or low blood glucose when choosing to drink alcohol.”
If you use an insulin pump or a CGM, make sure you check that they are working properly before you leave the house, without any low-power indicators. If you need to fill your pump with insulin or change out either your infusion set or CGM sensor, do it before you begin drinking or get drunk. As Dr. Jeremy Pettus and Dr. Steve Edelman say in this video, “Protect yourself from drunk you as much as you possibly can.”
It’s important for everyone to avoid getting drunk to the point of not being able to protect yourself. For people with diabetes, this includes protecting yourself from hypoglycemia.
Navigating social situations
If you find yourself in situations where people around you are drinking, or your friends like to party, there are ways to fit in without feeling left out:
“It’s okay to choose sparkling water with lemon or a diet soda instead of an alcoholic drink in a social setting,” said Swift. “If you do choose to drink alcohol, have a glass of water, or another no-calorie beverage between alcohol-containing drinks.” It’s also okay to hold a drink and not consume it, if that makes you more comfortable.
Tell a trusted friend ahead of time where you keep your supplies, such as your blood glucose monitor or CGM reader, how to get glucose tabs or juice if you need it, and, if necessary, how to give emergency glucagon, either by injection or by nasal inhalation, said Arevalo. It’s also good to have a designated non-drinker in your group, who can watch out for everyone’s safety. And be sure the group you are with knows that the signs of a low blood sugar and the signs of being drunk are the same, said Swift: slurred speech, blurry vision, dizziness, confusion, lack of coordination, irritability, and potentially, loss of consciousness.
Make sure you’re hanging out with people you want to be with, and consider where drinking fits in to your health goals and your life. “Friends are only friends if they accept you the way you are and help to take care of you,” said Arevalo. “If you feel peer-pressured to drink, let them know that you have to take care of yourself because of your diabetes. Good friends will respond in a positive way, and will understand and help you. If you want to have a good time and don't want to keep an eye on how much you are drinking, alert your friends about your diabetes. Let them know where you have your supplies, how to use them, and who to call and what to do in case of an emergency.” Remember, never drive if you (or your driver) have been drinking.
Finally, if you’re going to drink, be smart about it. Always start with a blood glucose level that’s at a healthy, in-range level, sip—don’t chug—your alcohol, and avoid drinking to excess. Your body, your brain, and your diabetes will all be easier to manage once you’re done drinking, either for the evening, the event, or for good.