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How Alcohol Affects Blood Sugar Levels

written by: Ms Lisa • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 10/29/2010

The topic of alcohol and blood sugar levels is often misunderstood, sometimes leading to a life-threatening situation. Some people believe that when a diabetic consumes alcohol it causes the blood sugar levels to rise. However, studies have shown that just the opposite happens

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    The Role of the Liver in Blood Sugar Control

    The pancreas secretes two hormones: insulin and glucagon. The carbohydrates that you consume are converted into glucose during the process of digestion. The pancreas reacts to the increase of glucose in the bloodstream by secreting additional insulin that transports the glucose to the cells of the body to be used as energy. When diabetes is present, either the pancreas does not produce a sufficient supply of insulin (type 1 diabetes) or their body cannot process insulin effectively (type 2 diabetes).

    When the bloodstream contains an insufficient supply of glucose, the pancreas secretes the hormone glucagon. Glucagon has two primary responsibilities. It allows the liver to release excess glucose that is stored there into the bloodstream, and it also helps the liver to create glucose from protein and fat.

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    How Does Alcohol Affect Blood Sugar Levels?

    Alcohol contains a fair amount of carbohydrates which cause a sharp rise in blood glucose levels. The pancreas quickly ups its production of insulin to counteract the rise in blood sugar. Once blood sugar levels are normalized, the liver normally kicks in to release small amounts of glucose into the bloodstream to maintain the proper blood sugar levels.

    It takes the liver two hours to clear the alcohol from one drink out of the bloodstream. When the liver is busy removing alcohol from the bloodstream, it is unable to release or produce glucose. Unless you continue to consume carbohydrates either through food or alcohol, blood sugar levels can drop dramatically causing a condition known as hypoglycemia.

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    Can a Diabetic Safely Drink Alcoholic Beverages?

    Whether or not a diabetic can consume alcohol depends on the amount of carbohydrates consumed and blood sugar levels prior to and during the time of alcohol consumption as well as the type and amount of diabetic medication taken. A general rule of thumb is no more than one alcoholic beverage per day for women and two for men.

    Consult your physician or nutritionist before consuming alcohol to get recommendations specific to your medical condition.

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    Is This Situation Dangerous for the Diabetic?

    When blood sugar levels fall too low, a condition called hypoglycemia can occur. Initial symptoms of hypoglycemia are dizziness and shakiness. If left untreated, hypoglycemia can result in improper brain functioning, seizures, unconsciousness and even death. Treatment includes drinking a glass of juice or other sweetened beverage followed up by carbohydrates and protein, like a candy bar. If the diabetic is unconscious or unable to drink or eat, swab glucose gel inside the cheek or give them a glucose injection before calling for emergency medical assistance.

    Even if hypoglycemia does not occur, the consumption of too much alcohol may impair the thought process. This can be dangerous for a diabetic who may then forget to take their medications, monitor their blood sugar levels or eat when necessary. They may also not be in a condition to notice the normal signs and symptoms of the onset of hypoglycemia quickly enought to treat the condition.

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    Are There Any Other Factors to Consider?

    Consuming alcohol can have severe health consequences for diabetics suffering from nerve damage called neuropathy. The alcohol can increase the intensity of symptoms, including numbness, tingling, burning and pain. Diabetics are also prone to problems with vision which also can be aggravated by the consumption of too much alcohol.

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