How To Drink Responsibly If You Are Diabetic

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the average South African consumes 11 litres of alcohol in a year which is almost twice as much as the global average. Out of 195 countries surveyed, South Africa closes the top 30. In addition, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) counts 3.5 million diabetics in South Africa and about 2 million cases are undiagnosed.

With these statistics in mind and the country’s imminent descent to Advanced Level 3—which entails a further easing of restrictions on alcohol and ludic activities—the need for education on alcohol consumption for people living with diabetes or who are at risk is high.

“When you eat a meal your blood sugar level usually spikes up within 2 hours and drops after 4 hours. At this point the liver releases stored glucose into the bloodstream to keep your sugar level up within the normal range. When you drink, ethanol, a substance found in alcohol, it is toxic to the body. It therefore takes priority to be metabolised by liver. During this process, the liver is unable to release glucose into the bloodstream, which causes hypoglycaemia—i.e. low blood sugar level,” says Omy Naidoo, Dietician at Newtricion Wellness Dieticians.

However, the real danger resides in the fact that the symptoms displayed by a hypoglycaemic are very similar to that of a person who is intoxicated. “You may slur your speech, wobble around, feel dizzy or weak. So if you having a night out with people, and have a low blood sugar level, your mates may think you have just had too much to drink rather than thinking you are having a medical emergency,” added Naidoo.

When this goes untreated, low blood sugar level can cause seizures, loss of consciousness, and, in worst cases, death.  There is a popular maxim among diabetics: a high sugar level may be fatal over the year, but a low blood sugar level will kill you in a matter of hours.

As a diabetic, being mindful of the following may assist in minimising the risks associated with alcohol:

  • Drink according to what diabetes experts recommend, which is two alcoholic drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. A single drink is the same as a single of a spirit, or 330ml beer or a medium glass of wine
  • If taking medication in the evening such as insulin or tablets, try to have a sober person around to assist you. A common scenario is that the intoxicated patient dials up more insulin than usually taken.
  • Exercise lowers your blood sugar levels, and in the event of heavy drinking as well as late night dancing, this could increase your risk of having a hypoglycaemia
  • Work with a dietician to formulate a plan as to how you incorporate alcohol into your diet without compromising your health goals.
  • Always wear a medic alert bracelet which states you are diabetic, so that people around you may pick up that you could be having a medical emergency rather than being intoxicated.