See How Alcohol Can Trigger Hypoglycemic Symptoms in Diabetics

Dec 17, 2010 by

Drinking alcohol

Although it has calories, alcohol is neither a carbohydrate, a protein, nor a fat. What is it then? Well, the body considers alcohol a poison that needs to be broken down, detoxified, and removed from your blood as soon as quickly as possible to prevent it from damaging cells and organs. In addition, it can also cause hypoglycemic symptoms.

The route of alcohol in your body

When you drink, alcohol passes very fast from your digestive tract to your blood without being broken down; immediately afterwards, the alcohol goes to the liver where it is broken down. This process takes time, however, because your liver can only metabolize alcohol at a certain speed.  If you drink alcohol faster that it can be broken down, it moves through your bloodstream to other parts of your body, including the brain. Your brain cells are affected by this excess, impairing brain function and causing intoxication.

Whether or not you have eaten and what you have eaten, are two factors that influence how quickly alcohol is absorbed into your blood. Since alcohol can only be processed at a certain rate by your liver, slowing down the absorption time (how quickly alcohol appears in your blood) can be beneficial.

How fast your stomach empties into your intestines is the main control for how quickly alcohol is absorbed. The higher the fat content of a meal, the slower the emptying and the longer the absorption process. Some studies have shown that people who drank alcohol after a meal that included fat, protein, and carbohydrate, absorbed the alcohol about three times more slowly than when they drank the same amount on an empty stomach.

Alcohol can cause hypoglycemic symptoms

Aside from the intoxication that alcohol can cause, the process of breaking down alcohol interferes with other processes on the liver’s agenda. Normally, when your blood glucose level starts to drop, your liver responds by changing glycogen into glucose. This glucose then helps you avoid or slow down a low blood glucose reaction. However, since your body sees alcohol as a poison and wants to clear it from your blood as quickly as possible, it gives priority to processing the alcohol, ignoring to release any glucose until the alcohol is gone from your system.

Drink and eat

The inability to produce glucose can put you at risk for a number of different problems, including a severe hypoglycemic reaction. In addition, if you have consumed enough alcohol, your judgment may be impaired, decreasing or even erasing your ability to notice or recognize symptoms of hypoglycemia. To top it all, because the symptoms of hypoglycemia mimic intoxication, a low blood glucose reaction can easily be confused with drunkenness, possibly delaying emergency treatment even further, should you become incoherent.

Do you need to abstain from drinking alcohol?

So, do you have to abstain from alcohol in order to control blood glucose? Can you have a beer or a glass of wine with your meal? There is no right answer here. Your history of alcohol consumption, the medications you are taking to control blood glucose, and your diabetes control need to be evaluated by your diabetes team care. If your diabetes team care okays it, remember the following:

  1. Drink only if your diabetes is under control. Alcohol can make some diabetes problems worse.
  2. Drink in moderation. Moderation generally means no more than two drinks per day for men and one per day for women. A single drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 ½ ounces of distilled liquor.
  3. Do not skip a meal or decrease your food intake when drinking. Never drink on an empty stomach
  4. Always carry a form of identification that indicates people you have diabetes. This lets people know that your erratic behavior could be due to severe hypoglycemia.
  5. Never drink alone. Inform the people around you that you have diabetes and teach them the symptoms of hypoglycemia.
  6. Best thing to do is to remain sober. Understand how drinking affects your blood glucose and keep testing your blood sugar on schedule.

Final words

Remember that alcohol can make some diabetes problems worse. It can accumulate in nerve cells, intensifying damage from high glucose levels and worsening neuropathy. It also raises triglycerides, blood pressure, and the risk of cataracts. If you have frequent hypoglycemia or a past history of severe hypoglycemia, alcohol may be too big a risk for you.

To your health!

Emilia Klapp, R.D., B.S.


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