In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including questions about what's true and not true in the field of medicine. For our July/August 2012 issue, we interviewed a researcher from the Joslin Diabetes Center about alcohol and diabetes.
Q: My husband has diabetes and says it's OK to drink alcohol. Is that true?
If you have diabetes, you already know the drill. What you eat, when you eat, and how much you eat can send your blood sugar skyrocketing -- or make it plummet. For better or worse, "diet and diabetes" go together like salt and pepper.
So if you need a little motivation to eat better - and who doesn't? - consider this: with diabetes, you're at high risk of the nerve pain and damage called diabetic neuropathy. What can start as a little tingling or numbness in your feet can turn into major problems...
A: While it's fine for some people with diabetes to drink some alcohol, your husband's blanket statement is FALSE. The more accurate answer would be "it depends."
In general, "adults who are in good health and have good blood sugar control can drink alcohol," says Elizabeth Bashoff, MD, a senior staff physician with Joslin Diabetes Center, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. "But it shouldn't be more than one drink per day for women and two per day for men."
Alcohol poses several problems for people with diabetes, Bashoff explains. First, after an initial spike in blood sugar, alcohol causes that level to drop. Because being tipsy causes the same symptoms as low blood sugar (sleepiness and disorientation), your husband may not know his levels are low. Second, if he drinks alcohol while taking glucose-lowering medications, his blood sugar levels can drop to dangerous levels. Third, heavy alcohol use can aggravate some diabetes complications, including nerve and kidney disease.
Encourage your husband to drink only at meals and only when his blood glucose is under control. Ask him to wear an ID explaining he has diabetes, in case people mistake his low blood sugar symptoms for drunkenness. Make sure he talks to his doctor about alcohol, so he can get personal advice.
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If the level is below 70 and you are experiencing symptoms such as shaking, sweating or difficulty thinking, you will need to raise the number immediately. A quick solution is to eat a few pieces of hard candy or 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey. Recheck your numbers again in 15 minutes to see if the number has gone up. If not, repeat the steps above or call your doctor.
People who experience hypoglycemia several times in a week should call their health care provider. It's important to monitor your levels each day so you can make sure your numbers are within the range. If you are pregnant always consult with your health care provider.
Congratulations on taking steps to manage your health.
However, it's important to continue to track your numbers so that you can make lifestyle changes if needed. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.
Your level is high if this reading was taken before eating. Aim for 70-130 before meals and less than 180 two hours after meals.
Even if your number is high, it's not too late for you to take control of your health and lower your blood sugar.
One of the first steps is to monitor your levels each day. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.
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