Alcohol and Diabetes: Proceed with Caution

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Can I drink alcohol with diabetes?

Is it OK to drink alcohol if you have diabetes? Start by asking yourself three basic questions:

  • Is my diabetes under control?
  • Does my doctor agree that I am free from health problems that alcohol can make worse?
  • Do I know how alcohol can affect my diabetes?

If you answered “yes” to all three, it may be OK to have an occasional drink. But what does occasional mean? If you’re a man, you should have no more than two drinks a day. For women, it’s one drink a day.

Risk of Low Blood Sugar

If you have diabetes and take insulin shots or oral diabetes pills, you risk low blood sugar when you drink alcohol. To protect yourself, never drink on an empty stomach. Plan to have your drink with a meal or snack.

Normally, when your blood sugar level starts to drop, your liver steps in. It goes to work changing stored carbohydrates into glucose. Then, it sends the glucose out into the blood, which helps you avoid or slow down on a low blood sugar reaction.

However, when alcohol enters your system, this changes. Alcohol is a toxin. Your body reacts to it like poison. Your liver wants to clear it from the blood quickly. In fact, your liver won’t put out glucose again until it has taken care of the alcohol. If your blood glucose level is falling, you can quickly wind up with very low blood sugar.

When you mix alcohol and exercise, you increase the risk of going low. This can happen because exercise helps lower your blood sugar levels. Let’s say you just played a couple of hard sets of tennis. You have a beer after the match. But in the hours after the game, your body is still working. It is replacing the energy your muscles used. To do this, it clears the glucose from the blood and adds it to the muscles’ store. This is why exercise can cause your blood sugar level to go down.

Check with your doctor to see whether it’s OK to combine alcohol with your diabetes medications.

Wise Drink Choice for Diabetes

Some drinks are better choices for people with diabetes. Select drinks that are lower in alcohol and sugar. If you use mixers in your drinks, choose ones that are sugar-free, such as diet drinks, diet tonic, club soda, seltzer or water.

Light beer and dry wines are good choices. They have less alcohol and carbohydrates and fewer calories.

When to Avoid Alcohol

Some people with diabetes should not drink alcohol. If you have nerve damage from diabetes in your arms or legs, drinking can make it worse. Drinking can increase the pain, burning, tingling, numbness and other symptoms found with nerve damage.

Heavy drinking (three or more drinks per day) may also make diabetic eye disease worse.

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