Boozin’ and Cruisin’ – The Dos and Don’ts of Drinking with Diabetes

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At the end of May, I enjoyed an incredibly magical experience with my family. We went on a 7-night cruise to the Caribbean on the Fantasy, a Disney ship. The cruise did have its rocky moments, between our luggage failing to make it onboard and two Omnipod failures); otherwise, we loved every second of our vacation.

I knew that the trip would involve more alcohol consumption than I’m used to. My family and I were interested in attending some of the tastings offered onboard, as well as a mixology class in which we’d learn to make a variety of cocktails. I was excited for this unique opportunity, but also a little apprehensive about the effect it may have on my blood sugars.

I went on the cruise with the basic knowledge that beer tends to make my blood sugar high because it is loaded with carbs. I usually try to bolus for it, but this can sometimes be risky depending on the quantity I drink and what kind (light, pale, stout, lager, etc.) it is – if I bolus for it too much, I could wind up in a nasty low by the end of the night.

As for wine, I don’t usually bolus for it. Wine seems to have almost no effect on my blood sugar, making it a favorite of mine. That being said, when I do indulge in a glass, it’s almost always with my dinner to ensure that I’m not drinking on an empty stomach.

And then there are the tricky, delicious mixed drinks that befuddle me. At home, it’s fairly easy for me to gain access to “skinny” drinks with fewer carbs. But on the cruise ship, particularly during the drink tastings, I was aware that my choices were much more restricted. Strawberry mojitos and pomegranate passions are yummy, but are they worth a possible hyper or hypo blood sugar?

Despite my concerns (or thanks to them), I was careful and able to enjoy the mixology class and martini tasting that I did with my family. I also learned quite a few things about drinking and diabetes for my future reference. Below is a list of my personal dos and don’ts that I use as a general rule of thumb when I am drinking. I want to emphasize that these are my rules and that the effect of alcohol on a person with diabetes can be unpredictable. Keep in mind that what works for me may not necessarily work for you. That said, the tips below may serve as a useful guideline.

Do make sure I eat a meal or snack before having a drink of alcohol. I’ve spoken with my endocrinologist as well as my nutritionist about this before, and they both strongly dissuaded me from drinking without any food in my system.

Do test my blood sugar before, during, and after drinking. I also monitor my CGM so I can stay aware of my blood sugar range and take any necessary corrective action.

Do carry all my supplies with me. Extra test strips, insulin, glucose tablets, the whole nine yards – I might not always need it, but on some rare occasions I thank myself for being prepared in advance.

Do enjoy my drink. I take small sips and experience the ingredients that blend together to make the drink. I find that this prevents me from drinking in excess, and it also sometimes slows down spikes that could occur in my blood sugar.

Do feel free to not finish my drink. My mom and I both have Type 1 diabetes, and when we realized that we would be offered five full drinks over the course of one hour in our mixology class, we nearly panicked. We quickly solved the issue by deciding to split some of the more sugary concoctions, leaving our classmates with one extra drink that an eager student or two was happy to take.

Do my research! I scour the internet for nutritional information regarding a wide array of alcoholic beverages. While this isn’t a foolproof method, it can be helpful to have a rough idea of how many carbs I should bolus for when having a drink.

Don’t drink if I don’t want to. To me, this is a no-brainer. Just because someone offers to buy me a drink, or everyone around me is drinking, doesn’t mean that I have to partake.

Don’t be afraid to ask the bartender for any diet or sugar free drink mixers that might be available to me. I’m never sure until I ask! My drink of choice on the cruise became Jack and Diet Coke because it seemed to have a minimal impact on my blood sugar.

Don’t go overboard with tempting sugary drinks. Yes, piña coladas and frozen margaritas and Long Island Iced Teas all sound appealing to me, but it is just too difficult to tell how much to bolus for them. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy one every now and then; rather, I do so in a cautious way to avoid problems.

Don’t go to bed without checking my blood sugar. For me, this is intuitive and it doesn’t deviate from my daily routine. If I spent part of the night drinking, I absolutely want to know where my blood sugar is before I drift off to sleep. Sometimes, I even set an alarm to wake me up in the middle of the night so I can test again to be sure I’m on the right track.

Again, this list isn’t definitive, but I’m hoping some of my experience opens up the floor for discussion on the subject. It is extremely important to talk about drinking with diabetes – particularly with teens and college students who might not be aware of how diabetes is affected by alcohol.

I’ll round off this article with one last don’t that I find myself embracing: Don’t shy away from talking about this with my family, friends, and physicians! The latter can be especially helpful in determining a good strategy so drinking can be fun and safe. Cheers!

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