The risks of alcohol use and diabetes

The South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (SANCA) educates us on the effect alcohol use has on diabetes patients, substance dependency in South Africa, and their latest campaign #KICK-YOUR-HABIT.

Alcoholism and diabetes

SANCA warns that alcohol can have negative effects on any person but especially if the person suffers with diabetes. Alcohol affects the liver by interfering with its job to regulate the blood sugar in the body.

The liver needs to work harder to change the proteins into glucose from the alcohol, especially when the person has consumed large amounts of alcohol. Alcohol can cause blood sugar changes as it has high calories and increases blood pressure. It could either increase or reduce the blood glucose levels, depending on the number of units consumed by the person.

People with Type 1 diabetes may experience dangerously low blood sugar levels when drinking alcohol in large quantities.

Alcohol will reduce the person’s ability to recognise the normal symptoms of a low blood sugar. A person with diabetes could therefore have a serious hypoglycaemic episode and fall into a coma. The people around the person may assume that they have fallen down due to being drunk and leave the person to sleep off the excess alcohol consumption. If the person is alone and becomes confused, aggressive or disorderly because of the low blood sugar, they may even end up being arrested and spend the night in jail. In either event, failure to treat the low blood sugar it could be fatal.

Beverages, such as beer and sweet wines, have carbohydrates that increase blood sugar. Other risks involved are that one’s judgement is impaired and could cause a person to forget to take their medication or double dose. which could also lead to a serious situation.

The person can also experience an increase in their appetite and then one tends to tends to make unhealthy  eating choices, leading to weight gain. Alcohol further tends to interfere with the medications or insulin used to control diabetes and could lead to low blood sugar.

Note: a person with low blood sugar seems ‘drunk’ as they display similar symptoms, such as disorientation, flushes, nausea, increased heart rate, slurred speech and dizziness. It can become a medical emergency and the person would need medical care when going into ‘insulin shock’.

Does this mean that a diabetic patient can never drink alcohol?

The answer is no. They can drink alcohol, if they stick to the following guidelines:

  • Always consult your general practitioner about drinking alcohol.
  • Always have a medical alert notice on you, stating that you have diabetes.
  • Test your blood sugar levels before taking a drink and don’t drink when your blood glucose is low.
  • Make sure you don’t drink on an empty stomach; food slows down the rate of how alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream.
  • Know your limits; women can only drink one unit per day and men two units per day. One unit is 330ml beer or one medium glass of wine or one tot.
  • Avoid binge drinking.
  • Avoid sweet sugary drinks.
  • Mix alcohol with water, club soda or diet soft drinks.
  • Drink slowly; it takes two to four hours for the liver to break the alcohol down.
  • Don’t mix alcohol and exercise as both increase the risk of lowering the blood sugar levels.
  • Always carry around glucose tablets or another sugar source.

#Kick-Your-Habit by giving up one habit for one week!

International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Trafficking is celebrated on 26 June. SANCA celebrated this over the week of 24 to 30 of June 2017, with their annual campaign #Kick-Your-Habit.

Substance dependency in SA

Substance dependency statistics show that drug consumption (cannabis, cocaine, and Tik) in South Africa is twice the global average and second to none in Africa1.The average age of drug dependency in South Africa is 12 years and decreasing. South Africa is among the top 10 narcotics and alcohol abusers in the world.

For every 100 people, 15 have a drug problem and for every R100 in circulation, R25 is linked to the substance abuse problem2. Drug and alcohol dependency is destabilising the fabric of South African society and is often linked to other social ills, such as violent crime, gender-based violence, child abuse, and the ever increasing HIV/AIDS incidence rates.

The South African youth are particularly vulnerable to the experimentation and long-term use of substances, whether it be alcohol, illicit drugs, or even over-the-counter and prescription medication.

The cost to the country is measured not merely in rands, but also in loss of creativity, innovation, artistry, talent, to name a few. As endemic as the problem of substance abuse within the country is, many South Africans know very little about the problem and how it might be affecting them personally. Secondly, many people are unaware of the difficulties faced by substance dependents when first entering treatment and the long-term fight that is faced over the years after treatment.

Years of believing that the addict has a choice every time they use, has led to the idea that active addiction is fuelled by the irrational and selfish behaviours of the individual themselves. However, addiction is far more complex that this simple explanation. The drive to continue using is more often fuelled by the psychological and physical needs of the dependent individual and treatment is often more complex that just stopping.

Aims of #KICK-YOUR-HABIT campaign

The purpose is to raise awareness of the complexities related to addiction and dependence. It seeks to build awareness through experience; by challenging individuals within our communities and country to stop using one ‘thing’ for a week and experience, albeit briefly, to see what a substance dependent might go through in treatment.

With experience comes education and this is the ultimate aim of the campaign. Whether this ‘thing’ is caffeine, tobacco, chocolate, or even shopping; it is entirely up to the supporter’s discretion. However, it is important to consider the choice and select the habit that is used on regular basis.

Keeping a daily log, or even an online blog of your progress is encouraged, as this will create awareness for the difficulties faced by dependents on a daily basis. Whether this daily log is posted online or is private is your decision, as long as you engage with the challenge. It is our responsibility as citizens of this country to work together to build a brighter future for the next generation.

Please contact SANCA on 011 892 3829 or on WhatsApp 076 535 1701, if you want to refer someone for help with an alcohol problem. Visit or their Facebook page SANCA National or Tweet them @sancanational


1-UN World Drug Report, 2014.

2 -Christian Addiction Support, 2016.