A Brief Guide to Alcohol Metabolism and Blood Glucose

As a type 1 diabetic who loves a good IPA, I often get asked how alcohol affects blood glucose. The answer I give is not what most would expect.

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Alcohol does not equal Carbohydrates

Most people lump alcohol in with carbohydrates. They expect alcohol to act as sugar and raise blood glucose. What they fail to understand is that alcohol is not a carbohydrate.  Yes alcohol starts off as sugar, but the process of fermentation converts sugar into ethyl alcohol and CO2, neither of which is a sugar and therefore neither is processed as a sugar.

Alcohol is a completely different nutrient, although use of the word nutrient is controversial. Alcohol provides energy (7 kilocalories/gram); however, it performs no essential functions in the body. Basically we get energy from it, but we don’t need it as we need fat, carbohydrates, and protein.

How then is Alcohol broken down?

Alcohol mostly gets broken down in the liver.  Our bodies cannot store alcohol in its original form, so it works very hard to rid itself of it. Two enzymes alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase work to convert alcohol. Alcohol breakdown always takes priority over the breakdown of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Liver cells detoxify alcohol, using the products to synthesize fatty acids, which are then assembled into fats.  Welcome to the beer belly or much worse, fatty liver.

Alcohol and Blood Sugar

The effect of alcohol on blood sugar is complicated.

We’ve learned that alcohol differs from carbohydrates and so does not in itself cause blood glucose to spike.  We’ve also mentioned that alcohol breakdown takes priority over the breakdown of other nutrients.  Another thing to add is that heavy drinking suppresses gluconeogenesis, which is the body’s process of synthesizing glucose to maintain blood glucose levels and avoid hypoglycemia.

This means that diabetics should be wary, as it becomes more difficult to raise your blood sugar as you ingest more alcohol.  Because your body focuses on breaking down alcohol over other nutrients you are also more likely to become hypoglycemic, if you drink on an empty stomach or post workout.

Hyperglycemia is a risk as well, as many alcoholic drinks are sweetened with juices and simple syrup.

Tips to Safe Drinking for the Type 1 Diabetic

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At a wine tasting in Napa with my parents

That being said, there are a few ways to drink responsibly as a diabetic, and minimize the risks associated with alcoholic consumption.

  1. Make sure to check blood sugar before beginning to drink
  2. Don’t drink on an empty stomach
  3. Never drink alcohol when your blood sugar is low
  4. Always carry glucose
  5. Know what’s in your drink
  6. Beer and wine are better for blood sugar control
  7. Drink in moderation
  8. Don’t drink pre or during workout

What if you’re not Diabetic? Is hypoglycemia still a risk?

Hypoglycemia is still a risk, even if you are not a diabetic.  Although it’s extremely rare, people without diabetes can  become hypoglycemic if they drink excessively without having eaten for days or if they were to conduct extreme exercise under the influence.

Generally the advice is the same: be smart, be safe, and enjoy that IPA

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4 thoughts on “A Brief Guide to Alcohol Metabolism and Blood Glucose

    1. I am so glad you have found it helpful! Please feel free to reach out with any further questions you may have. I was diagnosed when I was two years old, but I can understand how challenging/complicated it may be.

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