Alcohol and diabetes

How drinking alcohol can contribute to the conditions that cause diabetes.

Diabetes affects around 3.2 million people in the UK. It’s likely there are another 630,000 people who have the condition, but aren’t aware of it (1).

It’s a common, life-long condition that occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the insulin it does produce doesn’t work properly. Insulin is a hormone that transfers glucose from the bloodstream into the cells to be used for energy. If you have diabetes, your body cannot make proper use of this glucose so it builds up in the blood instead of moving into your cells.

The chances of developing diabetes may depend on a mix of your genes and your lifestyle. Drinking to excess, for example, can help to cause diabetes.

It’s a manageable condition. But when it’s not well managed, it is associated with serious complications including heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney disease, nerve damage and amputations (2).

There are two main types of diabetes (3)

Type 1 diabetes. Develops if the body can’t produce enough insulin, because insulin-producing cells in the pancreas have been destroyed. It can happen:

  • because of genetic factors 
  • when a virus or infection triggers an autoimmune response (where the body starts attacking itself).

People who have this type of diabetes are usually diagnosed before they’re 40 and there’s currently no way to prevent it. It’s the least common type of diabetes – only 10% of all cases are type 1 (4).

Type 2 diabetes. Develops when the body can still make some insulin, but not enough, or when the body becomes resistant to insulin. It can happen:

  • when people are overweight and inactive. People who are an ‘apple-shape’ (with lots of fat around the abdomen) have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes
  • because of genetic factors.

People who have this type of diabetes are usually diagnosed when they’re over 40, and it’s more common in men. However, more overweight children and young people in the UK are being diagnosed with the condition. It is also particularly common among people of African-Caribbean, Asian and Hispanic origin. 90% of all adults with diabetes have type 2 diabetes (5).

Signs of diabetes include being extremely tired, blurred vision and feeling more thirsty than usual (6)

The main symptoms of undiagnosed diabetes can include:

  • going to the toilet to urinate more often than usual, especially at night
  • feeling thirsty
  • extreme tiredness
  • unexplained weight loss
  • genital itching or regular episodes of thrush
  • slow healing of cuts and wounds
  • blurred vision.

With type 1 diabetes signs and symptoms are usually obvious and develop very quickly over a few weeks. Once the diabetes is treated and under control, symptoms will go away quickly.

In type 2 diabetes, signs and symptoms may not be so obvious. The condition develops slowly over several years, and it might only be picked up in a routine medical check-up. As with type 1 diabetes, symptoms are quickly relieved once diabetes is treated and under control.

Drinking alcohol can contribute to the conditions that cause diabetes

There are three main ways drinking alcohol to excess can be a factor in causing diabetes:

1.Heavy drinking can reduce the body’s sensitivity to insulin, which can trigger type 2 diabetes (7).
2.Diabetes is a common side effect of chronic pancreatitis, which is overwhelmingly caused by heavy drinking.
3.Alcohol contains a huge amount of calories – one pint of lager can be equivalent to a slice of pizza. So drinking can also increase your chance of becoming overweight and your risk of developing type 2 diabetes (8).

Get some practical tips on cutting down.

Teetotallers and heavy drinkers have an equally high risk of developing diabetes

Low levels of alcohol could potentially provide some level of protection against developing diabetes. According to a review of 15 previous studies (in 2005) into the link between diabetes and alcohol, ‘moderate drinkers’ (who drank between one and six units per day) were a third less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than either people who didn’t drink alcohol or those who drank heavily. This is thought to be because low to moderate levels of alcohol actually make the body more sensitive to insulin (9) (10).

The effects of diabetes

When someone has diabetes, more of the glucose in their body stays in their blood – it isn’t being used as fuel for energy. The body tries to reduce blood glucose levels by flushing the excess glucose out of the body into their urine.

Patients on insulin treatment for diabetes can develop abnormally low blood sugar levels. This is known as hypoglycaemia. Symptoms of hypoglycaemia include:

  • slurring words
  • a headache
  • confusion
  • double vision
  • abnormal behaviour
  • unconsciousness.

Hypoglycaemia 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. Drinking heavily can also increase the chances of developing hypoglycaemia because it prevents the liver from making glucose when you drink on an empty stomach (11). For example, the risk of hypoglycaemia would increase the morning after you’ve slept following heavy drinking.

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 (12).

People with diabetes don’t usually have to give up alcohol

Doctors usually advise diabetics that they can safely drink alcohol in moderation. So, if you have diabetes and drink, it’s particularly important to stay within the government's lower risk guidelines. It’s also important to eat a healthy diet and take exercise to help control blood sugar levels. 

How much alcohol is too much?

Busting the myths about diabetes

  • You cannot catch diabetes. But you can control some of the risk factors that lead to the development of type 2 diabetes.
  • Eating sweets and sugar does not cause diabetes. But eating a lot of sugary and fatty foods can lead to being overweight.
  • Stress does not cause diabetes. Although it may make the symptoms worse in people who already have the condition.
  • An accident or an illness will not cause diabetes. But it may reveal diabetes if it is already there.

Facts

  • Diabetes affects 3.2 million people in the UK (13). 
  • The NHS estimates that around 10% of adults in the UK with diabetes have type 1 and 90% have type 2 (14). 
  • Type 2 diabetes is often associated with obesity (15)
  • People with type 2 diabetes are usually diagnosed when they’re over 40 (16), while type 1 diabetics are mostly under 40 (17).

Staying in control

Drinking within the government’s lower risk guidelines will help keep your drinking in control.  Here are three ways you can cut back:

1. Eat well. A healthy meal before you start drinking, and snacks between drinks can help to slow down the absorption of alcohol. It’s particularly important if you’re diabetic. Alcohol lowers blood sugar levels, so eat plenty of food, preferably carbohydrates, to make sure blood sugar levels stay steady.

2. Keep track of what you’re drinking. Use our free and simple online tool MyDrinkaware. As well as noting how many units you’re drinking, it will tell you how many calories you’re consuming too – and the equivalent in burgers, kebabs and donuts. It’s a great way to watch your units and your weight. 

3. Know your strength. Alcoholic drinks labels will have the abbreviation “ABV” which stands for Alcohol By Volume, or sometimes just the word “vol”. It shows the percentage of your drink that’s pure alcohol. This can vary a lot. For example, some ales are 3.5%, some stronger lagers can be as much as 6% ABV. This means that just one pint of strong lager can be more than three units of alcohol, so you need to keep your eye on what you’re drinking.

Further information

Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.

If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0800 917 8282.

For more information about diabetes, contact Diabetes UK. They work for people with diabetes, funding research, campaigning and helping people live with the condition. www.diabetes.org.uk

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Effects of drinking too much

Over-consumption of alcohol can affect your health in many ways.

Health effects of alcohol Effects on relationships The effects of alcohol on your child

References

Page updated: November 2014