A Look at Alcohol and the Risk of Diabetes

Think of type 2 diabetes and you probably think of obesity: and it is true – excess weight is the biggest risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Almost 90% of people living with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese. Diabetes can be a vicious disease. At its worst it can lead to amputations, blindness, organ failure, and early death.

But what about alcohol – can alcohol cause diabetes?

How Does Diabetes Work?

It’s like this: In the body food is turned into sugar. An excess of food, especially sweets, will turn into an excess of sugar. (While alcohol is not a sugar it is a high-glycemic carbohydrate.) This creates an increased demand for insulin in the body. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body convert food into usable energy. The body’s sensitivity to the hormone is reduced when insulin levels are consistently high and glucose builds up in the blood. This results in a condition called insulin resistance. Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can decrease the effectiveness of insulin. For the body that cannot make proper use of this glucose, it will instead build up in the blood rather than moving into the cells where it’s needed. Symptoms can include fatigue, hunger, brain fog, and high blood pressure – and not least of all, weight gain. People who have insulin resistance most often don’t realize it’s a problem until it develops into full blown type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes can seriously affect quality of life and reduce life expectancy: A 50 year old with diabetes can lose 8.5 of life compared to a 50 year old without diabetes.

What Is the Correlation Between Alcohol and Diabetes?

While moderate drinking may not necessarily have harmful effects in the development of diabetes, and in fact can even have protective qualities, heavy drinking can be extremely dangerous.

How does alcohol affect diabetes? It works like this:

  • Heavy drinking can trigger type 2 diabetes by reducing the body’s sensitivity to insulin.
  • Heavy drinking can also cause chronic inflammation of the pancreas, AKA pancreatitis, a condition of which type 2 diabetes is a common side effect. Heavy drinking over a period of 10 years or more is the cause of 8 out of 10 cases of chronic pancreatitis. What alcohol does is disrupt the digestive process by inflaming and damaging the cells, often causing severe pain.
  • Alcohol contains large amounts of empty calories (one beer can be equivalent to a slice of pizza) which can increase chances of becoming overweight. Alcohol also has the effect of stimulating the appetite, causes overeating, and impairs judgment in regards to making healthy food choices.
  • Moderate amounts of alcohol may cause blood sugar to rise. Excess alcohol can actually cause the blood sugar levels to decrease, sometimes causing it to drop to dangerous levels especially for people with type 1 diabetes.
  • Smokers – especially those who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day – almost double their risk of developing diabetes when compared to nonsmokers.
  • If you’re a diabetic taking oral medications, alcohol can interfere with the positive effects of diabetes medications or insulin.

Are You Pre-diabetic?

Pre-diabetes: What is it?

Pre-diabetes is a condition in which blood glucose levels are higher than normal, but not quite high enough to be full-blown diabetes. If you have pre-diabetes you are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes within a decade unless corrective lifestyle changes are made. These changes can include weight loss, a healthier diet, more physical activity, and importantly, moderating the consumption of alcohol.

According to the American Diabetic Association1, 29.1 million Americans – or 9.3% of the population – had diabetes in 2012. (Of those, approximately 1.25 million American children and adults had type 1 diabetes.) Every year, 1.4 million new cases of diabetes are diagnosed. Yet alarmingly, of those 29.1 million, 8.1 million cases were left undiagnosed. (It’s possible to have elevated blood-sugar levels that meet the criteria for diabetes but never have symptoms.) Undiagnosed diabetes, left untreated, can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke and even escalate into more extreme conditions as mentioned above.

But even the statistics of the undiagnosed pale next to this: In that same year of 2012, 86 million Americans age 20 and older had pre-diabetes. This was up nine percent from only two years before. According to a recent study published in JAMA2, nearly 50% of adults in America have diabetes or pre-diabetes. An even more recent UCLA study3 determined that number to closer to 55%.

Lowering Diabetes Risk

Many people who leave their diabetes undiagnosed do so because they are terrified of the possibility that it could happen to them. Diabetics don’t always fit the stereotypical profile: approximately 20% of people with type 2 diabetes are thin and 75% of obese people never get it. Family history, age, race, and ethnicity also play a role.

If you are pre-diabetic the best way to know for sure is to get your blood tested by a doctor. A standard physical exam often includes a blood-glucose evaluation (AKA the glycated hemoglobin test). A fasting-glucose level below 100 milligrams per deciliter is normal. From 100 to 125 mg/dl is considered in the pre-diabetes range. Above 125 is diabetes.

Quitting Alcohol Reduces Diabetes Risk

If you’re found to have elevated blood sugar don’t despair, the treatment isn’t as severe as you may fear. One study found that 58% of study subjects with pre-diabetes were able to prevent type 2 diabetes by making the necessary lifestyle adjustments: one of the most important changes is to put an end to heavy drinking.

If you or a loved one have an addiction to alcohol, contact BLVD Treatment Centers. At BLVD Treatment Centers we custom tailor our recovery programs within the safe and nurturing confines of our rehab treatment centers. Located throughout California, in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and in Portland, OR, our mission is to assess the severity of your addiction to help you achieve true recovery within 30 days. Call us now at 1-866.582.9844.


  1. American Diabetes Association. Statistics About Diabetes: Overall Numbers Diabetes and Prediabetes. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  2. The Journal of the American Medical Association. Prevalence of and Trends in Diabetes Among Adults in the United States, 1988-2012. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  3. Los Angeles Times. Are you pre-diabetic? 46% of California adults are, UCLA study finds. Retrieved March 30, 2016.


Does Drinking Cause Diabetes? Alcohol and the Risk of Diabetes