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Alcohol and Diabetes

Risk of Low Blood Sugar

If you have diabetes and take insulin shots or oral diabetes pills, you risk low blood sugar when you drink alcohol. To protect yourself, never drink on an empty stomach. Plan to have your drink with a meal or after eating a snack.

How does alcohol add to your chances of having low blood sugar? It has to do with your liver.

Normally, when your blood sugar level starts to drop, your liver steps in. It goes to work changing stored carbohydrate into glucose. Then it sends the glucose out into the blood, which helps you avoid or slow down a low blood sugar reaction.

However, when alcohol enters your system, this changes. Alcohol is a toxin. Your body reacts to alcohol like a poison. The liver wants to clear it from the blood quickly. In fact, the liver won't put out glucose again until it has taken care of the alcohol. If your blood glucose level is falling, you can quickly wind up with very low blood sugar.

This is why drinking as little as 2 ounces of alcohol (about 2 drinks) on an empty stomach can lead to very low blood sugar.

When you mix alcohol and exercise, you increase the risk of going low. This can happen because exercise helps lower your blood sugar levels. Let's say you just played a couple of hard sets of tennis. You have a beer after the match. But in the hours after the game, your body is still working. It is replacing the energy your muscles used up. To do this, it clears glucose from the blood and adds it to the muscles' store. This is why exercise can cause your blood sugar level to go down.

If you take insulin or diabetes pills, they too are working to clear glucose from your blood. Unless you eat or your liver adds glucose to your blood, you could be heading for a low blood sugar level. If you drink a beer, the alcohol will stop your liver from sending out any glucose. Your chances of going low are even greater.

Check with your health care provider to see if it's OK to combine alcohol with your diabetes medications.

Low blood sugar when drinking is less of a risk for those with type 2 diabetes who control their diabetes with meal planning and exercise alone.