Alcohol and hypoglycemia: Link, signs, and treatment

Doctors associate alcohol consumption with a higher risk of low blood sugar, which is known as hypoglycemia. The body must maintain blood sugar balance to function properly.

The liver is responsible for keeping blood sugar within the typical limits. This organ stores and produces sugar according to hormonal signals from insulin and glucagon.

Another role of the liver is to detoxify the body of alcohol. When someone consumes alcohol, the liver may then neglect blood sugar level maintenance in favor of breaking down alcohol. The person may then experience hypoglycemia.

People with diabetes need to pay particular attention to their alcohol consumption because of its effects on blood sugar levels.

This article explores alcohol and hypoglycemia, its symptoms, and treatment. It also looks at the relationship between alcohol and diabetes and alcoholism and hypoglycemia.

Alcohol may make hypoglycemia more likely. The mechanism behind this effect involves the liver.

The liver is an organ that plays a vital role in stabilizing glucose levels. It does this by acting as a reservoir for carbohydrates. When a person eats, the liver stores sugar as glycogen, which it can release as necessary to keep the body’s fuel steady.

When an individual does not eat overnight and between meals, the liver turns stored glycogen into glucose and releases it into the bloodstream. This process allows the body to maintain blood sugar levels.

The liver is also essential in detoxifying the body. It breaks down toxins, such as alcohol, into components that the kidneys then excrete.

However, problems arise if the liver must choose between balancing blood sugar and detoxification because it cannot perform these simultaneously actions. If the organ has to choose between maintaining blood sugar or detoxifying alcohol, the liver metabolizes alcohol. If it cannot fulfill its role in maintaining blood sugar levels at the time, a person may experience hypoglycemia.

Additionally, if an individual drinks on an empty stomach or when their blood sugars are already low, it increases the likelihood of hypoglycemia.

The symptoms of hypoglycemia include:

  • drowsiness
  • slurred speech
  • confusion
  • feeling shaky
  • fast heartbeat
  • lightheadedness or dizziness
  • hunger
  • naughty
  • headaches
  • seizures

Many of these symptoms are also signs of being drunk, making it challenging to tell if someone is hypoglycemic or intoxicated.

Severe hypoglycemia occurs when someone has very low blood glucose levels. Without treatment, it can lead to loss of consciousness and coma. Therefore, it is important to seek immediate medical attention to confirm this diagnosis and receive appropriate treatment.

While drinking alcohol may lower blood sugar, it is rare in people who do not have diabetes.

Those with the condition must treat hypoglycemia right away. If blood sugar levels are below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl), doctors recommend following the “15–15 rule”. This is a guideline that advises a person to have 15 grams of carbohydrates and recheck blood sugar levels after 15 minutes. If levels remain too low, they should repeat these steps until their blood sugar level is above 70 mg/dl.

Once the person’s blood sugar levels are in a safe range, they should eat a snack or meal to prevent blood sugar from dropping again.

People with diabetes whose blood sugar level is too low to treat with the 15–15 rule safely may require glucagon injections.

If someone plans to consume alcohol, they should eat enough food beforehand, as alcohol intake can impair blood sugar for several hours. Doctors recommend ensuring carbohydrate intake before and while drinking to maintain blood sugar levels in the target range.

People should also avoid strenuous activities on the same day they consume alcohol. An increase in activity raises insulin sensitivity and increases the risk of hypoglycemia.

Read more about how alcohol affects blood sugar levels.

Alcohol can cause hypoglycemia more easily in people with diabetes. Low blood sugar can occur when alcohol mixes with diabetes medications, such as insulin and sulfonylureas.

In addition to an increased likelihood of hypoglycemia, alcohol also raises the risk of diabetes complications such as eye problems, vision loss, heart disease, and strokes.

Alcoholic beverages provide the body with calories but contain few nutrients.

Therefore, if a person consumes more calories than they require, it can contribute to weight gain. Maintaining a moderate weight helps lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and other health complications such as heart disease and stroke.

Estimates suggest that 95% or more people with alcohol use disorder have low blood sugar.

The exact reasoning behind this is unknown, but trends show that when individuals with alcohol use disorder discontinue consuming alcohol, they often turn to high-calorie foods to provide enjoyment.

In addition, it is possible for people with this condition to develop type 2 diabetes due to the disruption that chronic drinking can cause on various metabolic processes.

When the brain does not receive enough glucose, it can become damaged, which may lead to chronic memory and learning impairment.

Untreated hypoglycemia can lead to severe and long-term health problems, which is why it is crucial to keep blood sugar levels within a typical range.

People with alcohol use disorder may experience chronic health issues because of repeated hypoglycemia.

If someone passes out or collapses, this may signify severely low blood sugar, requiring urgent medical attention.

If an individual with diabetes is hypoglycemic and their blood sugar levels do not improve after eating carbohydrates, they should seek medical attention. A doctor may need to administer treatment with glucagon to restore their usual blood sugar levels.

Alcohol and hypoglycemia are an unsafe combination, especially in people with diabetes and in those who drink frequently.

The liver plays a crucial role in both detoxifying the blood of alcohol and maintaining blood sugar levels. However, it struggles to perform both processes simultaneously and prioritizes alcohol metabolism over blood sugar maintenance, which can lead to hypoglycemia.

People drinking on an empty stomach are particularly at risk of hypoglycemia. Therefore, eating food before drinking alcoholic beverages is essential.

Individuals with diabetes must take care when consuming alcohol. This is because their body already has difficulties balancing blood sugar levels, which increases the likelihood of experiencing hypoglycemia.

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