Alcohol and Nutrition

  • Author:
    Betty Kovacs, MS, RD

    Betty is a Registered Dietitian who earned her B.S. degree in Food and Nutrition from Marymount College of Fordham University and her M.S. degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. She is the Co-Director and Director of nutrition for the New York Obesity Research Center Weight Loss Program.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Quick GuideAlcohol Abuse Pictures Slideshow: 12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking

Alcohol Abuse Pictures Slideshow: 12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking

How does alcohol affect your blood sugar?

The sugar in our blood, also known as blood glucose, is used for growth and energy. Blood glucose comes from the foods that we eat, the breakdown of the glucose stored in our muscles (glycogen), and it can also be made from other nutrients in the body. The primary hormones involved in maintaining a healthy blood glucose level are insulin and glucagon. Normally, when your blood sugar begins to drop, your body can respond by making more blood sugar or burning up stored sugar. And when your blood sugar begins to rise, additional insulin is secreted to bring your levels back to a healthy range.

Alcohol is considered a poison by your body, and all efforts are made to excrete it, including the cessation of maintaining healthy blood glucose levels. Studies have shown that alcohol interferes with all three sources of glucose and the hormones needed to maintain healthy blood glucose levels. The greatest impact is seen in those who drink heavily on a frequent basis. Heavy drinkers deplete their glycogen stores within a few hours when their diet does not provide a sufficient amount of carbohydrates. Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can decrease insulin's effectiveness, resulting in high blood sugar levels. One study showed that 45%-70% of people with alcoholic liver disease had either glucose intolerance or diabetes.

Alcohol can also negatively impact blood sugar levels each time that it is consumed, regardless of the frequency of consumption. Research has shown that acute consumption increases insulin secretion, causing low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), and can also impair the hormonal response that would normally rectify the low blood sugar. Drinking as little as 2 ounces of alcohol on an empty stomach can lead to very low blood sugar levels. This makes alcohol an even bigger problem for anyone with diabetes. Along with the impact on blood sugar, studies have also shown that alcohol can impact the effectiveness of the hypoglycemic medications, so extreme caution needs to be taken when consuming alcohol by anyone with diabetes.

There is also an increased risk of problems when combining exercise and alcohol. It is not uncommon for people to go out for a drink after playing sports (for example, hockey, soccer, tennis) or to consume some alcoholic beverages while playing. Your blood sugar levels naturally drop during exercise, and your body is working on replacing your glycogen stores once you are finished. Consuming alcohol during this time will halt this process and can cause blood sugar levels to stay at an unhealthy level.

Alcohol can wreak havoc on a system that is in place for your health and well-being. Excessively low or high blood sugar levels have long-term consequences. If you choose to consume alcohol, here are some tips to help avoid this problem.

  • Never drink on an empty stomach.
  • Start with nonalcoholic beverages to satisfy your thirst and continue to have one available while you consume alcohol.
  • Limit the amount that you drink.
  • You can make a drink last longer and lower the impact that it will have on your blood sugars by having a wine spritzer.
  • If you have diabetes, speak with your physician about how alcohol will affect your medication(s).
  • Consume beverages without alcohol during and after exercise. Continue Reading
Reviewed on 2/17/2016
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