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Planning on enjoying a drink or two during the Australia Day long weekend? If you’re living with diabetes, there are a number of things to consider.

While there is a connection between diabetes and alcohol, there is no reason why people with diabetes should give up alcohol completely. Alcohol does affect blood glucose levels and contains a lot of kilojoules, but with a few precautions and careful management, it is possible for people living with diabetes to enjoy a couple of drinks from time to time.

Alcohol affects different people in different ways, regardless of their health conditions. It has a confusing effect on the body. Moderate amounts of alcohol may cause a spike in blood glucose levels, but on the other hand, drinking too much alcohol can cause your blood glucose levels to drop too low.

Alcoholic drinks can be quite high in sugar which can raise your blood glucose level. Some beers, ales and ciders have more carbohydrates than spirits and dry wines. If you like mixed drinks, you could choose to try diet mixers or soda water.

It’s always a good idea to eat something along with your drinks, or beforehand, to compensate for the expected drop in blood glucose levels and carry some quick-acting carbohydrate with you (like jellybeans) just in case you experience a hypo.

For people using insulin or certain types of diabetes medication, hypoglycaemia (blood glucose levels less than 4 mmol/L) is a risk with alcohol consumption.

How is alcohol processed in the body?

The body treats alcohol as a drug, not as a food product. When you drink any type of alcoholic beverage, your liver starts working to “detoxify” the body of this “poison”. Essentially, the liver has to break down the alcohol into less harmful substances. This takes, on average, about two hours. While the liver is efficient, it can only do so much at one time. And handling alcohol is its number one priority. So, this means that while your liver is busy managing the effects of that glass of chardy, it may not pick up on the fact that your blood glucose levels are starting to drop and release glucose to prevent it going too low as it normally would. This effect can last for many hours after you drink.

Drunk and disorderly

Alcohol may also mask the symptoms of hypoglycaemia, meaning you and others around you may not realise you are having a hypoglycaemic event. Hypoglycaemia’s symptoms can be particularly dangerous when you’re drinking because people can mistakenly think that you’re drunk and may not realise you need urgent medical help. Slurring, confusion and abnormal behaviour are often signs of drinking too much. Many people, young adults in particular, have stories of being mistreated by others or the police, thinking they were acting drunk and disorderly when in fact they were having a hypo. In order to avoid hypoglycaemia, you may wish to monitor your blood glucose levels more frequently when drinking. Keep in mind, the risk of hypoglycaemia could also increase the morning after you’ve slept following heavy drinking.

Long-term effects

Drinking excessively can contribute to weight gain as alcohol is high in kilojoules, and hence increase your risk of diabetes-related complications and other health conditions. One standard drink of alcohol provides the same kilojoules as a small steak! One pint of beer can be equivalent to a slice of pizza. Additionally, if you have nerve damage as a result of diabetes, drinking alcohol can make it worse and increase the pain, tingling, numbness and other symptoms. If you are uncertain about other alcohol choices, talk to your GP, diabetes educator or dietitian aboutdrinking alcohol safely. For more information: An NDSS Fact Sheet on alcohol can be found on the Diabetes WA website under Manage your Diabetes/Resources.

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 two standard drinks per day for both men and women, while having regular alcohol-free days. A standard drink contains 10g of alcohol. It’s important to know what a standard drink is for different types of alcohol so you can monitor your intake. When in doubt, test your blood glucose to see how alcohol affects you.

It’s easy to over-estimate when pouring a standard drink, so it’s a good idea to:

  • check the number of standard drinks on the label of the bottle/can
  • measure out a standard drink into a glass, so you know what it looks like
  • be aware that many wine glasses can hold two or more standard drinks.

Planning on having a drink this Australia Day long weekend? Here are some do’s and don’ts on how to safely enjoy a glass.

  1. Know your limits and remember your standard drink sizes.
  1. Never drink on an empty stomach or when your blood glucose is low. It’s best to drink with your meal or right after it. This is especially important for those on insulin and/or medication.
  1. Do not replace food with alcohol in your regular meal plan. Especially if you use carbohydrate counting to plan meals, do not count alcohol in your plan as a carbohydrate choice.
  1. Drink slowly. Allow your body to break-down each drink so it can better cope with the intake.
  1. If you are hitting the pub with some friends, wear a medical bracelet that says you have diabetes. This simple step could save your life in case of an emergency.
  1. Follow every drink with a glass of water to stay hydrated.
  1. Don’t add sweet mixers to your spirits. Choose plain water or soda water instead.
  1. Limit your intake to 2 drinks to play it safe.
  1. Monitor your blood glucose levels a little more closely than you may otherwise.
  1. Make healthy food choices whilst drinking. Don’t let your reduced inhibitions alter your decision-making. Swap the chips and pizza for some nuts or cheese to snack on while you enjoy your drink.

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