Alcohol and sugar have a complex relationship. Alcohol can make your blood sugar levels fluctuate and even cause high blood sugar in the long term. Sugar can replicate some of the effects alcohol has on your brain, which is one reason why sugar cravings are very common during early sobriety. Let’s take a look at how alcohol and sugar are related, and how you can manage sugar cravings in early sobriety.
Alcohol and Sugar: What’s the Connection?
When you drink alcohol almost every aspect of your body’s functioning is affected in some way. This includes how you process sugar. Moreover, alcoholic beverages often introduce excess sugar into the bloodstream. Let’s break down what this means for one’s health.
What Does Alcohol Do to Glucose Levels?
Alcohol can have a ‘rollercoaster effect’ on glucose levels. Your liver is responsible for storing glucose and sending it out to cells through the bloodstream. This concentration of sugar in your bloodstream is what’s often referred to as your glucose levels, or blood sugar levels. When you drink alcohol, your liver becomes preoccupied with metabolizing alcohol, and isn’t able to release necessary glucose into the bloodstream. This causes blood sugar to temporarily drop. Also, drinking alcohol causes your pancreas to produce more insulin, which is a hormone that lowers blood sugar. Both of these factors lead to low blood sugar and explain why you sometimes feel light-headed or tired directly after drinking.
It’s also possible for drinking to raise your blood sugar both in the short or long term. If someone consumes several sugary alcoholic drinks, it may override the factors above and actually increase blood sugar. Also, because alcohol is a toxin, it takes the body a long time to process it. While your kidneys are busy processing alcohol, they can’t perform their normal job of excreting excess sugar through urination, which can cause blood glucose to climb higher than usual. In brief, drinking alcohol can cause unnatural fluctuation in blood sugar.
How Long Does Alcohol Impact Blood Sugar?
Alcohol can have a direct impact on blood glucose for the entire time it takes alcohol to leave your system, which is typically 12 hours after drinking. The length of time depends on how much alcohol is consumed, and how rapidly. It also also varies depending on a person’s sex, weight, metabolism, food intake, exercise and underlying health factors.
Longer term impacts of alcohol on blood sugar are related to the pancreas. The pancreas is responsible for managing insulin in the body. When alcohol is metabolized, it creates toxic byproducts that damage cells in the pancreas. Over an extended period of heavy drinking, the alcohol-related damage to the pancreas can lead to long-term problems with blood glucose regulation and chronic high blood pressure, otherwise known as hypertension.
How Does Alcohol Raise Blood Sugar?
One of the reasons alcohol can raise your blood sugar is because it temporarily halts your body’s natural way of processing sugar. Your kidneys filter your bloodstream and ultimately expel excess sugar through urination. When you’ve been drinking alcohol, however, your kidneys become preoccupied with processing alcohol instead of sugar. The high sugar content in many alcoholic drinks also plays a large role in why alcohol can raise blood sugar. Let’s take a closer look.
Sugar in Alcohol
While pure forms of alcohol like whisky and vodka don’t contain sugar, other forms of alcohol, like beer and wine, do. The amount of sugar in an alcoholic beverage varies—for example, a small glass of wine can range anywhere from 1-16 grams of sugar depending on the type of wine. While this may not seem like a lot, if someone ends up drinking several large glasses of wine (instead of a 5 oz. glass), the amount of sugar can add up and significantly raise your blood sugar.
Added Sugars in Alcoholic Beverages
Most cocktail mixers have added sugar. For example simple syrup, tonic water, and colas are all high in sugar. A hard cider or lemonade is also surprisingly high in sugar, and of course any fruity drink, like a piña colada or mimosa, is also extremely high in sugar.
Why Are Sugar Cravings Common in Recovery?
There have been many interesting findings about why sugar cravings are so common in early recovery. First, many people may consume sugar in order to get the same artificial dopamine boost they would get while drinking. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for the “high” feeling you get after drinking. Long-term alcohol use can suppress our body’s natural ability to produce dopamine, and it can take time to recover our natural dopamine production after we stop drinking. Because sugar, like alcohol, can provide a brief dopamine boost, many people turn to it as a form of relief in early recovery.
There may be a genetic explanation too. Some research studies have found a link between people who have a sweet tooth and people at risk of excessive alcohol use. Apparently, there may be a genetic or familial connection between those two things (at least for certain people). This may be explained by the “reward center” in our brains that responds to alcohol in the same way it responds to sweets.
In addition, sugar can provide a short-lived energy boost. Feelings of exhaustion, fatigue, and general depletion are common withdrawal symptoms in early sobriety. Many people may reach for sugary foods as a quick solution. What the body really needs at that stage are essential nutrients and new healthy habits, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough rest and eating foods that support recovery. At the same time, sobriety is a process, and you shouldn’t feel shame about ‘treating yourself’ more than usual at the start of your journey. It’s okay to prioritize your sobriety and give yourself some extra comforts.
Support Group: How to practice self-compassion while changing your relationship with alcohol
What Are the Risks of Sugar?
Learning more about the risks of sugar consumption can help you better understand how your body is working and what boundaries you want to put in place.
The short-term negative effects of sugar include mood swings (an initial spike and then drop), which can lead to additional sugar cravings. Another short-term effect is that your body is taking in empty calories, instead of nutritious foods that support mood stability and resilience.
Long Term Effects
Using sugar as a coping mechanism in early recovery can be a place to start reducing the harm that comes with drinking and being more mindful of what’s driving these behaviors. However, if someone continues to use sugar it can have some long-term risks. Recovery is a period when people are rediscovering natural sources of pleasure, practicing new ways to manage negative feelings, and improving their overall health. If excessive sugar intake continues beyond early recovery, it can interfere with positive changes. And of course long-term excessive sugar intake is also associated with a whole range of health issues, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and inflammation.
How Does Alcohol Affect People with Diabetes?
As mentioned above, if the liver is forced to choose between processing alcohol and stabilizing blood glucose, it will process the alcohol first. So having an alcoholic drink can initially lower our blood glucose. This can create a particularly dangerous situation for people with diabetes.
There are also long-term risks of alcohol use for people with diabetes. If someone continues to drink heavily, the liver will be unable to do its job properly. This can cause someone with diabetes to experience poor glycemic control over time. The pancreas is also damaged by excessive alcohol use, so people with Type II Diabetes are likely to experience increased problems with blood glucose regulation as a result. Talking to your doctor is the best way to ensure what amount of alcohol, if any, is safe for consumption while managing diabetes.
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- University of California, San Francisco. “Diabetes & Alcohol, https://dtc.ucsf.edu/living-with-diabetes/diet-and-nutrition/diabetes-alcohol/.” Accessed Jan 5th, 2022.
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