Diabetes and Alcohol - general advice
- 25 February 2020
- Healthy Living
For some people, having a few drinks at home or in the pub is part of everyday life. And having diabetes shouldn’t get in the way of this unless this has been advised on medical grounds.
But when you have diabetes, it’s a bit more complicated. You might want to know whether it's safe to drink alcohol, and how much is OK.
So yes, you can still drink, but you need to be aware of how it can affect your body and how to manage this. For example, drinking can make you more likely to have a hypo, because alcohol interferes with your blood sugar levels. It can affect your weight too, as there can be a lot of calories in alcoholic drinks.
We’ll give you all the facts here.
Alcohol and risk factors for type 2
There are several risk factors for type 2 diabetes, these include your family history, age and ethnic background. We also know you’re more likely to develop it if you’re overweight.
Excess alcohol intake is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, but the relationship between alcohol and risk of type 2 diabetes can be a little bit complicated and staying within government guidelines is the safest way to drink alcohol.
Alcohol can also contain a lot of calories, which can lead to putting on weight.
Take a look at our information about risk factors and find out your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Government guidelines on alcohol units
To help keep health risks from alcohol at a low level, it’s safest not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week. These guidelines are the same for men and women. The guidelines also recommend that if you choose to drink up to 14 units a week, spread this over at least three days.
But what does this actually mean when you’re in the pub or having dinner with a glass of wine at home?
It means you shouldn’t drink more than six medium glasses of wine or six pints of lager a week.
But the size of the glass and type of alcohol affects the number of units, so it’s best to check the guidelines at drinkaware.co.uk
Alcohol and hypos
If you use insulin or some other diabetes medications like sulphonylureas, you’re more likely to have a hypo. Drinking alcohol can then add to this, because alcohol reduces your body’s ability to recover when blood sugar levels are dropping. Usually, the liver stores extra glucose which is released back into the blood when needed, such as when blood sugar levels drop. But alcohol stands in the way of the liver’s ability to do this effectively. If you’re not sure whether your medication can cause hypos or if they're affected by alcohol, it’s best to speak to your healthcare team.
If you drink a lot or on an empty stomach, you’re even more likely to have a hypo.
Your risk of having a hypo doesn't go away after you stop drinking – it increases, and can last up to 24 hours.
It’s not uncommon for some people to mistake having a hypo for being drunk. So carry hypo treatments around with you and always wear some medical ID. You should also make sure that whoever you’re with knows you have diabetes, and knows how to help with a hypo if you need them to.
Alcohol and your weight
Depending on what you like to drink, there can be a lot of calories in alcohol. So if you’re trying to lose weight, you may want to drink less.
Alcohol and carbohydrates
If you’re carb counting, drinking can make it a lot more tricky. While a lot of alcoholic drinks contain carbs, you might not need to take your usual mealtime amount of insulin to cover them. That’s because you’re more likely to get hypos.
It all depends on what you drink, how much you drink, and what else you’re doing while you’re drinking – like eating or dancing. So it’s best to talk to your healthcare team and get their advice.
The morning after you’ve been drinking
If you end up having one too many, drinking a pint of water before you go to bed will help keep you hydrated. If you’re lucky, it may also help prevent a hangover in the morning. If you do wake up with a hangover, it’ll still help to drink plenty of water.
And always have breakfast – it will help you manage your blood sugar. If you can’t face food or you’ve been sick, drink as many fluids as you can, including some sugary (non-diet) drinks if your blood sugar levels are low.
If you’ve got a blood sugar meter at home, check your levels regularly the next day. The symptoms of having a hypo are similar to feelings of a hangover, so you need to know if you’re having one. No matter how awful you feel, you need to treat a hypo straight away. Don’t ignore it.
If you take insulin, you might need to change your dose depending on what your levels are. Talk to your healthcare team about what you should be doing.
Types of drinks
If you're going to drink, it's good to be aware of all the facts so you can choose the types of drinks best for you:
- Avoid low-sugar beers and cider – sometimes called diabetic drinks. They might have less sugar, but there's more alcohol in them.
- Avoid low-alcohol wines – these often have more sugar than normal ones. If you do choose these, just stick to a glass or two. Try to limit drinks with a lot of sugar, such as sweet sherries, sweet wines and liqueurs.
- Have diet or sugar-free mixers with any spirits – if a friend gets one for you, make it clear what you need.
- Some drinks like beers, ales and ciders contain carbs and will increase your blood sugar levels initially. Spirits, dry wines and Prosecco not so much, so these may be a better bet if you are concerned about the carbs in alcohol.
Other health risks
If you have diabetes, you should be aware of the other health risks around drinking. That way, you can help to avoid them by limiting how much you drink.
Here are a few things to watch out for:
- A lot of heavy drinking can lead to raised blood pressure.
- Alcohol can make neuropathy (nerve damage) worse.
- It dehydrates your body and stops you sleeping properly.
- It can also lead to certain cancers and heart disease.
Alcohol, fertility and pregnancy
Alcohol intake can affect fertility in men and women, so if you are trying for a baby it is important to cut back. For pregnant women the safest is not to drink alcohol at all during pregnancy. In particular, drinking alcohol during the first three months of pregnancy may increase the risk of a miscarriage. Excessive alcohol intake during pregnancy is never a good idea, and the more alcohol you drink the greater the risk to your baby. These risks include stillbirth, premature birth and foetal alcohol syndrome.
Alcohol and your emotions
Some people find that alcohol helps them deal with stress or when they're feeling low. It might make you feel more relaxed, but it’s not a healthy way of managing these feelings.
Getting more active can really help if you’re stressed or feeling anxious. Starting a hobby with a friend, or doing something relaxing like having a long bath or reading a book can all help.
You can talk to your healthcare team about how you're feeling, they'll be able to give you more advice and support about what might help. Or you might prefer to talk to someone close to you, like a friend or family member.
Remember, you can get in touch with our helpline. They are there to listen and will be able to give you more advice.
Type 1 diabetes and drinking
Whether it’s a trip to the pub, a few drinks to unwind at home on a Friday night, dinner out or a weekend away at a festival, having a drink or two is all part of life for most people.
You’ll be glad to hear it doesn’t have to be any different just because you have Type 1 diabetes. But there are a few things you need to bear in mind to make sure you stay healthy.
Advice for managing your diabetes when drinking alcohol:
- Be prepared. Get your diabetes kit and hypo treatments ready and check your blood sugar level before you start drinking.
- Make sure you check your blood sugar levels regularly throughout the night.
- Tell your new friends you have diabetes and what to do if you have a hypo.
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Eating foods that have carbs in them like a sandwich before a night out will help avoid a hypo.
- Remember that eating isn’t cheating. Make sure you carry snacks with you just in case, and eat before you go to bed.
- Stick to diet mixers
- Dancing is exercise, so remember that it can make your blood sugar levels drop. If you’re walking around from venue to venue, this also counts.
- Drink plenty of water when you get home, and check your blood sugar levels.
- If you have a hypo, treat it before you fall asleep.
- We have more in-depth information on drinking alcohol.
Drinking at university
Going out at university happens for the majority of us, and this often includes drinking. Most universities will have a dedicated Freshers Week where they host different night outs during the week.
Freshers’ Week can be quite boozy. Don’t feel pressured to drink alcohol at every opportunity, but Type 1 diabetes shouldn’t get in the way of a great night. Below, Jess and Gavin chat to each other about what they do to make sure they look after their diabetes while they’re out.
How much can I drink?
The government guidelines for alcohol are the same for everyone with and without diabetes which is 14 units a week.
How much is one unit of alcohol?
- A standard pub measure (25ml) of vodka counts as one unit.
- A 125ml glass of wine (9 per cent) counts as one unit.
- Half a pint of beer, lager or cider (3.5 per cent) is one unit, too, but be aware that many beer and wines often have a higher alcohol content than this.
On a night out, it’s important to pace yourself and make sure you know what your blood sugar levels are doing throughout the night. Drinkaware has a handy calculator you can use to see exactly how many units your favourite drinks have.
Can drinking make me have a hypo?
Drinking alcohol and hypos are common on nights out if you’re not careful. This is because managing your blood sugar levels can be tricky if you’re drinking and you have Type 1 diabetes. Alcohol, particularly lots of alcohol, can make your blood sugar drop too low, leading to a hypo when you’re drinking or the day after.
There are different things you can do to help avoid having hypos when you’re out or the day after including eating carbs, changing the type of drinks you choose. Tom and Emma speak about what they do before a night out to make sure they look after their diabetes.
After a night out and the morning after
Always have some breakfast if you've been drinking the night before, even if you don't feel like it. This will help your blood sugar levels and might make you feel better.
Make sure to check your blood sugar levels in the morning too because some hangover symptoms (such as headache, feeling sick, sweating and shaking) are similar to the symptoms you get with a hypo.
No matter how awful you feel, if it's a hypo you need to treat it straight away. Don't ignore it.