Diabetes and alcohol: is it a factor in Deputy Mayor Redon’s DWI?

On Wednesday night, March 19th, Rochester’s Deputy Mayor was pulled over for doing 70 in a 55 and later found by a breathalyzer to have a .13BAC. He was arrested for DWI, speeding and also for an unrelated expired inspection. On Thursday, spox for the Mayor’s Office made the statement that “alcohol and diabetes don’t mix,” per @ashleyzilka of News 8:

Reports go on to state that Redon was recently diagnosed with diabetes, the potential explanation for the arrest being that perhaps being newly diagnosed, he may not have known what the consequences of drinking would be. @rachbarnhart summed up nicely:

I was diagnosed diabetic about five or six years ago. And with the necessary caveat that I am certainly not a doctor, I think I can add a bit of context to the situation. But there’s a lot to parse, here:

  1. Is Redon Type I or Type II?
  2. How does having diabetes affect drinking alcohol?
  3. Can you, as suggested by one source, test positive for intoxication without being drunk when you are a diabetic?

On the issue of whether Redon is Type I or II, we can certainly make the educated guess that he’s Type II. Type I, or juvenile diabetes, is usually diagnosed when a person is young. I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who told me they were diagnosed with Type I later in life, only Type II.

Also worth noting that he appears to have lost some weight. That’s a pretty classic sign of late-diagnosis diabetes.

The type of diabetes is significant for two main reasons. The first is that Type II diabetics, at least of the untreated variety, have a problem with too much glucose in the blood stream, not too little. With treatment, however, the short-term effect is an extremely wonky blood sugar level that does fluctuate pretty wildly. So it is entirely plausible that a recently-diagnosed, recently medicated person can experience sudden drops in blood glucose.

But the second, related reason Type II diabetes is significant is because those sudden drops in glucose are scary as hell. Imagine going from perfectly sober to three-shots-of-tequila buzzed in about five minutes – without drinking – and you’ll see what I mean. Even if you are “used” to that feeling, it still causes panic attacks, because low blood sugar and anxiety are also related. My thinking is that most people would just pull over and panic, not speed up to 70.

Our second question is equally important. How does alcohol affect diabetics? While it is true that alcohol generally lowers blood suger, the real answer isn’t quite that straight forward. One important clue is what you drank. Brews and ferments like beer and wine tend to have enormously high levels of sugar and carbs, which means that in the short term, your blood sugar levels will go up, not down. Distilled spirits like vodka or whiskey have exceptionally low sugar content, and therefore are likely to lower your blood sugar.

So, the closest thing to a straight answer is that, if Redon had a beer or two, he would not have appeared drunk. If he had hard alcohol, well,.. maybe.

The final, and to me most intriguing, question is the whether a person can fail a breathalyzer test because they have low blood sugar? Is that really possible? Like a lot of lawyer tricks, this comes down to a pretty ambiguous “maybe.” There is scientific data to back up the basic claim, so let’s start there.

Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, occurs in all people, not just diabetics. When hypoglycemia happens, the body turns to alternative fuel sources. It begins converting fatty acids in the body into acetone, among other chemicals, which can be used by the brain as a fuel source. This condition is called Ketosis.

In this state, a breathalyzer will recognize the acetone incorrectly as alcohol.  According to one study, subjects tested showed as much as a .06 BAC which was actually acetone, not alcohol:

Hypoglycemia as a cause of acetone in the breath is well known and research has demonstrated that diabetics can have levels of acetone in the breath sufficiently high to register false readings of .06.

However, here come the caveats.

First, while hypoglycemia happens to everyone, Ketosis does not. It takes a fairly sustained or routine lowering of blood sugar for your body to hit the panic button like that. Wikipedia notes specifically that ketosis is more common among Type I diabetics. That makes sense, because they have been struggling with blood sugar for their entire lives. It’s worth noting here that it is the acetone created by ketosis that causes diabetics to go into comas, not the lowered blood sugar itself. So in order for Mr. Redon to have shown signs of ketosis, he would have had to be well past the point of being able to drive.

Finally and most damagingly to his case, while acetone could potentially get read as alcohol in a breathalyzer, the study I link to above only shows an increased reading of .06BAC. Mr. Redon’s breathalyzer came in at .13BAC. If we subtract our “handicap,” we still come out at .07, which would still get you a DUI. And of course, he has admitted to drinking, anyway.

Drinking and driving is no joke. Diabetes is no joke. Mayor Warren has not had a good run so far, and this isn’t even her appointment. But trying to paper over wrong doing by spreading misinformation about diabetes is not going to help anyone.

Rochester Science

High temps and alcohol: the key to a car-punching good time at Darien Lake.

It’s concert tailgating season at Darien Lake, and you know what that means – rowdy underage drunks getting arrested! This past Saturday, however, a new transgression was thrown into the mix: punching cars and security guards. Oh, good. At least we’re keeping it classy.

I’m sure for most readers, this offense is written off as nothing more than underagers not knowing their limits and being unable to hold their alcohol, but as it turns out, the alcohol wasn’t acting alone in this recipe for violence. Temperatures skyrocketed this past weekend, Saturday’s soaring well into 90- degree heat. It’s no secret that heat + alcohol = dehydration, but can the combination actually contribute to aggressive behavior, too?

According to Nancy Molitor, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University, yes.

“Hot, and especially humid, weather is associated with increased aggression and violence as well as a generally lower mood.”

Consuming alcohol, as we know, contributes to lower inhibitions, poor judgment calls, and in some cases, anger. Mix a day of drinking with Saturday’s scorching heat, and what have you got? A summer weekend at Darien Lake – where I just happen to be heading this upcoming weekend! Until next summer – let’s keep our heat to alcohol ratio in check, shall we?


How alcohol slows your reflexes down: the science of DWI

Rochester has seen a rash of DWIs making headlines lately and as a result, it seems like a good time to review the science behind alcohol’s influence on the nervous system. Sure it is well-known that alcohol is a depressant and can be deadly if an intoxicated person gets behind the wheel, but did you know that slower reaction times are the result of an overload of a part of your brain?

“Alcohol slows down the central nervous system,” said Karen Pelc, coordinator of IMPACT, a Substance and Drug Education & Prevention Program at Rochester Institute of Technology. “When individuals drink too much too quickly it can cause the heart, breathing and brain function to stop.”

Interestingly, researchers have found that the brain’s frontal lobes are greatly affected by alcohol intoxication. The primary functions of the frontal lobe include the ability to distinguish and choose between good and bad actions and the ability to recognize impending consequences resulting from those actions. Both of these functions are altered once alcohol reaches the brain because it slows down communication between the neurons sending signals to your body. This fact can explain why many DWI incidents involve drivers unaware that their actions are dangerous and merit consequences.

Furthermore, alcohol increases gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) activity which controls the time it takes a person to respond to a certain situation. In the case of drunk driving this is a major issue because as GABA activity increases, brain activity slows down. The driver will not be able to make a quick enough decision to avoid an accident, hence why our society is told not to drink and drive.

The way alcohol affects the nervous system is not something you would typically think about while enjoying an alcoholic beverage, but it’s important in understanding why those intoxicated act the way they do. DWIs are not taken lightly in today’s society, so before you decide to drive home after throwing back a few beers, you may want to take a moment to think about the effects those beers will have on the way your body functions.