When Wine & Diabetes Tangle


This content is a part of Beyond Type 1’s Alcohol and Diabetes Guide. Read more resources and stories about drinking with type 1 or type 2 diabetes hereThere are a lot of complications and issues that you have to look out for when drinking with diabetes, so make sure to stay informed and stay healthy!

One day, strolling across the cobblestones of a place in Italy called Vernazza, I began to develop a powerful thirst. I’d been walking since I left the train that morning, and the Riviera sun was very hostile. I’d also gone swimming in the Ligurian Sea, and salt parched my tongue. I couldn’t find a restaurant or a water fountain in the immediate area, and the nearest cool dark doorway happened to be a winery. I went inside.

It was one of those lovely Tuscan rooms that traps a modicum of bouncing light, feels larger than it is, and smells earthy. I was the only customer, and the sommelier looked at me expectantly. Feeling obligated to buy something, I browsed the racks, pretending to study each displayed label, and punctuated my walk with an occasional “hm.”

Eventually the sommelier took pity on me, and began showing me around the shop. She was friendly. I bought a white wine with some decorous name she recommended, and after more pleasantries, I left.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that wherever I went in Italy, I carried a corkscrew in my backpack. Or maybe it should. Is that a normal thing to do? Anyway, the wine was delicious: cool, not-too-sweet, and definitely thirst-slaking. I was happy again, and kept exploring.

It should go without saying that, A.) drinking an alcoholic beverage when you really need water is dumb, and B.) drinking an alcoholic beverage when you really need water as a diabetic is super, super dumb. But being young and disoriented in a strange country causes one to behave strangely.

An hour or two later, I got a nasty hypo in a piazza where a larval swarm of tourists clotted the walkways. (Alcohol does this: after an initial spike, your blood glucose levels (BGLs) often plummet—your liver normally releases glycogen to save you from severe hypoglycemia, but when you drink, your liver is busy dealing with the alcohol.) I’d already used my glucose tablets earlier when the swimming drove me low, and suddenly I had thrust myself into a frightening situation.

After a spell of earth-shaking anxiety familiar to any person with diabetes, I found some gelato and treated myself. Minor blunder, I know; treating hypos with fatty foods like gelato delays the arrival of glucose into the bloodstream, but I couldn’t find anything else.

That was four years ago. I turned out okay, but the whole experience was jarring and scary. I wish I’d had someone to sit me down on the sidewalk, slap me and remind me sternly about the rules of drinking alcohol with type 1 diabetes.

Wine also has a great deal of mythology surrounding it, and occasionally you’ll see a headline like “Red Wine Benefits: 10 Reasons You Need a Glass Right Now” scuttle up your Facebook feed. There does seem to be some evidence that a moderate daily serving of dry red wine might help to stabilize BGLs, or at least won’t destabilize them.

Still, it’s best to enjoy your wine with healthy serving of caution. Don’t do what I did. Enjoy the mythic world of wine with people you know, in a familiar place, with a plate of cheese and crackers beside you. Nobody likes to see a panicking American on the cobblestones.

Return to Beyond Type 1’s Alcohol and Diabetes Guide. The resources in this guide will help you make the right, healthy choices when drinking.  

WRITTEN BY Forester McClatchey, POSTED 08/22/17, UPDATED 12/29/22

Forester McClatchey is a writer and painter from Atlanta, GA, currently an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Florida. He has worked in a metal factory, drawn cartoons for newspapers and worked as a museum docent teaching children about dinosaurs.