Can I still enjoy a drink now that I have diabetes?
As with most things, moderation is the key! Guidelines for alcohol consumption are the same for people with diabetes as they are for the general population. Try not to have more than 2 standard drinks per day for both men and women, while having regular alcohol free days.
We know that alcohol consumption in excess of these recommendations places us at greater risk of developing heart disease, certain cancers, liver disease, stroke, dependency and mental health problems. There are some conditions including pancreatitis, liver disease, difficulty managing diabetes, high blood pressure or other complications, where you may be instructed to not drink at all. Women who are planning a pregnancy, pregnant or breastfeeding are also instructed not to drink alcohol. You may wish to talk to your GP if you are unsure.
Although alcohol can still be enjoyed in small amounts in people living with diabetes, there are a few things to be aware of. Alcohol is very high in kilojoules and low in nutrients. Drinking excessively can contribute to weight gain and hence, increase our risk of diabetes related complications and other health conditions. Another factor to consider is the type of food we usually consume when we are drinking. If you are anything like me, it will probably involve a bit too much cheese or other calorie dense snacks which further contribute to weight gain.
Drinking alcohol can also have an impact on your blood glucose levels – causing both high and low blood glucose levels. For people using insulin or certain types of oral medication to manage their diabetes, hypoglycaemia (blood glucose levels less than 4 mmol/L) is a risk with alcohol consumption. Because our liver is so busy trying to deal with the alcohol, it cannot release stored glucose to prevent us going too low (as it normally would). This effect can last for many hours after we drink. Alcohol may also mask the symptoms of hypoglycaemia, meaning you and others around you may not realise you are having a hypoglycaemic event. It is always a great idea to carry some quick acting carbohydrate with you (like jellybeans) just in case you experience a hypo.
In order to avoid hypoglycaemia, you may wish to increase how many time you are monitoring blood glucose levels. You may choose to have a small carbohydrate snack before bed. You may choose to try low-alcohol (not low carb) drinks and or mix your drinks with diet mixers like diet lemonade or soda water. If you are uncertain about other alcohol choices, you may wish to talk to your GP, diabetes educator or dietitian about drinking alcohol safely.
So yes – people with diabetes may be able to safely enjoy alcohol if it is done sensibly and with a few precautions! Cheers!
Marian is a Diabetes Educator and an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Diabetes WA.