Alcohol drinking patterns and risk of diabetes: a cohort study of 70

Good news for drinkers! More evidence that alcohol (and especially wine) could prevent diabetes

wine glass with red wine

A new study has shown that drinking moderately three or four times a week may protect people against diabetes.

In this Danish study, the association between alcohol drinking patterns and diabetes risk in men and women from the general ]population were examined (based on data from the Danish Health Examination Survey 2007–2008). The Danish scientists, led by Professor Janne Tolstrup from the University of Southern Denmark, publishing their findings in the journal Diabetologia.

76,484 survey participants (28,704 men and 41,847 women) were followed for a median of 4.9 years. Self-reported questionnaires were used to obtain information on alcohol drinking patterns, i.e. frequency of alcohol drinking, frequency of binge drinking, and consumption of wine, beer and spirits, from which drink-specific and overall average weekly alcohol intake was calculated. Information on incident cases of diabetes was obtained from the Danish National Diabetes Register. The investigation did not distinguish between the two forms of diabetes, Type 1 (where insulin needs to be injected daily) and the much more common but less serious Type 2.

During follow-up, 859 men and 887 women developed diabetes. Compared to teetotallers, men who drink three to four days a week are 27 per cent less likely to develop the condition, and women 32 per cent less likely.

The lowest risk of diabetes was observed at 14 drinks/week in men (HR 0.57 [95% CI 0.47, 0.70]) and at 9 drinks/week in women (HR 0.42 [95% CI 0.35, 0.51]), relative to no alcohol intake. Compared with current alcohol consumers consuming <1 day/week, consumption of alcohol on 3–4 days weekly was associated with significantly lower risk for diabetes in men (HR 0.73 [95% CI 0.59, 0.94]) and women (HR 0.68 [95% CI 0.53, 0.88]) after adjusting for confounders and average weekly alcohol amount.

The study researchers concluded that "Our findings suggest that alcohol drinking frequency is associated with risk of diabetes and that consumption of alcohol over 3–4 days per week is associated with the lowest risk of diabetes, even after taking average weekly alcohol consumption into account."


They also found that wine had the most substantial effect, probably because it contains chemical compounds that improve blood sugar balance. For both men and women, seven or more glasses of wine per week lowered the risk of diabetes by 25 per cent to 30 per cent compared with having less than one drink of wine.

But gin and some other spirits had a negative effect on women, with just one drink a day increasing the risk of diabetes by 83 per cent. One to six beers per week reduced diabetes risk by 21 per cent in men but had no effect on women.

Janne Tolstrup, of the University of Southern Denmark, said that she conducted the research because of previous studies showing an apparent connection between drinking and diabetes. She said she wanted to see if the pattern of drinking as well as the absolute quantities played a role. “I’ve done a lot of research into the association between alcohol drinking patterns and the risk of coronary heart disease,” "It is very evident that if you compare two men drinking the same amount, the risk depends on how they spread it out.” She wanted to see if the same applied to diabetes.

The cause of the positive effect of alcohol and particularly wine is not clear, although some studies have suggested a link between alcohol and the length of time insulin remains in the blood when it is released by the pancreas in response to glucose/sugar.  Insulin is used to regulate blood sugar levels and those deficient in it need to inject it and monitor their glucose levels.

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Of course the normal disappointing response to the results to avoid jeopardising future funding from the health authorities and sponsors. Professor Tolstrup said “I’ve been asked whether I would recommend drink. Of course not,” she said. “Alcohol is related to more than 50 diseases and conditions. We know among women for instance that the risk of breast cancer increases linearly with drinking. If you want to make any recommendations, you should look at everything.”

When he says “I’ve been asked whether I would recommend drink. Of course not,” but why not. The evidence is strong for a positive effect on health, particularly with wine. Don't be a slave to conventional prohibitioniest thinking!

Some public health bodies including Public Health England’s have an official alcohol guidance which states that there is “no safe level” of drinking. However this new evidence gives further complelling evidence that as well as protecting people from heart diease and stroke, it can help prevent diabetes. Therefore most epidemiologists argue that there appears to be an overall health benefit from a small amount of drinking, even if some government bodies tend to reject this view. 

Given the French Paradox, where moderate drinking in the French has helped to overcome bad habit like excessive cholesterol consumption and smoking and this new study, it appears the naysayers are getting it wrong. Some cancers like breast cancer risk is elevated at a relative level, but overall moderate alcohol, with exercise and good food, plus avoiding smoking seems like the ticket to a long and happy life! Abstaining from alcohol is just no fun at all!