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Pancreas – Diabetes

By: S. Rennie, LPN

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Alcohol can cause problems for those with and without diabetes. For those without diabetes, drinking large quantities of alcohol can cause pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). Pancreatitis, in turn, can hinder insulin secretion, thus causing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and sometimes diabetes.1 Hypoglycemia caused by binge- or excessive alcohol consumption can be very serious and sometimes fatal.2

For those with diabetes who take insulin shots or oral diabetes medication, alcohol presents the risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Hypoglycemia occurs when blood glucose levels are abnormally low.3

How it happens:
Glucose is a sugar the body produces mostly from dietary carbohydrates and is the main source of energy for all tissues.2,4 After a meal, glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream. The pancreas produces the hormone Insulin, which helps glucose enter the cells where they are used for energy or converted to fat and stored in fat cells. When blood glucose levels drop, glucagon (a hormone produced in the pancreas) sends signals to the liver to break down glycogen and release glucose. Those with diabetes may have impaired glucgon responses, making it more difficult to return glucose levels to normal.2

Alcohol effects:
Within five minutes of consuming alcohol, enough has entered the blood to measure. The alcohol is at its highest level 30 to 90 minutes after a drink. Alcohol is metabolized in the liver, and it takes a 150 lb. person around two hours to metabolize one drink. By drinking faster than the liver can metabolize it, the alcohol travels through the bloodstream to other parts of the body.5

Alcohol is a toxin to the body. The liver then works to get rid of it as quickly as possible and will not release any glucose until all alcohol is metabolized.5 For those taking insulin or oral diabetes medication, both that and the alcohol can cause the glucose level to get too low. On the other hand, the alcohol and sugars in alcoholic drinks can cause high blood glucose rates.6

For those alcohol-dependent people with poor eating habits, glycogen is depleted in only a few hours. When combined with the liver not releasing glucose while it metabolizes alcohol, severe hypoglycemia can surface 6 to 36 hours after a heavy drinking episode.4

Alcohol can exacerbate existing diabetic problems:

  • Alcohol can increase pain, burning, tingling, numbness and other symptoms of nerve damage caused by diabetes.
  • Three or more drinks a day can worsen diabetic eye disease.
  • People who have high levels of triglycerides in their blood should not drink because alcohol affects how the liver clears fat from the blood and signals the liver to produce more triglycerides.5


  1. Maria Collazo-Clavell, M.D. Diabetes: Do alcohol and tobacco use increase my risk? Ask a Diabetes Specialist. Tools for healthier lives.
  2. Hypoglycemia. National Diabetes Information Clearninghouse (NDIC). A service of the Naitonal Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), NIH. NIH Publication No. 03-3926. March, 2003.
  3. Hypoglycemia. MedlinePlus. A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health.
  4. Alcohol and Hormones. Alcohol Alert. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. No. 26 PH 352. October, 1994.
  5. Alcohol. American Diabetes Association.
  6. Alcohol, Diabetes and You. McKinley Health Center. University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign. Adapted from material by and reprinted with permission from The American Diabetes Association and the American Dietetic Association. 2006.

This page was last modified on : 10/28/2013

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