Alcohol and diabetes
Diabetes affects around 3.5 million people in the UK. It’s likely there are another 549,000 people who have the condition, but aren’t aware of it. Drinking alcohol can contribute to the conditions that cause diabetes.
Diabetes is 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 contribute to the conditions that cause diabetes.
Diabetes is a manageable condition. But when it’s not well managed, it is associated with serious health complications including heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney disease, nerve damage and amputations2.
There are two main types of diabetes3. 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 14.
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 diabetes5.
Being extremely tired, blurred vision and feeling more thirsty than usual are all symptoms associated with diabetes6. Some additional signs of undiagnosed diabetes can include:
Going to the toilet to urinate more often than usual, especially at night
Unexplained weight loss
Genital itching or regular episodes of thrush
Slow healing of cuts and wounds
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.
There are three main ways drinking alcohol to excess can be a factor in causing diabetes:
According to a review of 15 previous studies (in 2005) into the link between Type 2 diabetes and alcohol, drinking 3 units/day reduces the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 40% for women and 13% for men. People who drink 6 units/day (for women), or 8 units/day (for men), are at greater risk of Type 2 diabetes than teetotallers9.
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:
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. Drinking heavily can also increase the chances of developing hypoglycaemia because it prevents the liver from making glucose when you drink on an empty stomach10. 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 symptoms11.
Doctors advise everyone, including diabetics, that they if they chose to drink, to keep health risks to a low level it’s important to stay within the UK Chief Medical Officers' (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines and not regularly drink more than 14 units a week. After all, it's not just diabetes that you need to consider, the more you drink the greater your risk of developing a number of other short and long-term health issues such as seven types of cancer, mental health, heart and liver problems.
It's also important, if you want to avoid developing diabetes, or already have it and want to manage it well, that you look after your general health by eating a healthy diet and taking regular exercise, to help control blood sugar levels.
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 which in turn can result in the necessary conditions for becoming diabetic.
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.
Stay within the low risk drinking guidelines: following the UK CMOs' advice and not regularly drinking more than 14 units a week is the best way to keep health risks from alcohol to a low level. If you do choose to drink it's important not to save up those units to drink all in one go and spread your drinking evenly over at least three days. A great way to cut down the overall amount you drink is to take more Drink Free Days throughout the week.
Keep track of what you’re drinking. Use our free and simple mobile app to track not only your units but the calories you're drinking, and how much you're sepending on alcohol.
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.
If you have concerns about your health, are worried you might be diabetic or want advice relating to a diabetes diagnosis then you should always speak to your GP directly.
For more information about diabetes, visit the Diabetes UK website. They work for people with diabetes, funding research, campaigning and helping people live with the condition.
We run a confidential online instant messaging service where you can chat to a trained advisor if you are worried about your own or someone else's drinking.
Alternatively, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0300 123 1110.
 Baliunas, D. O., Taylor, B. J., Irving, H., Roerecke, M., Patra, J., Mohapatra, S. & Rehm, J. (2009). Alcohol as a risk factor for type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetes Care, 32, 2123-32.