Stress hormones have a big role to play. When you’re experiencing physical or emotional stress, hormones are released that increase your blood sugar. Cortisol and adrenaline are other primary hormones involved.
This is a perfectly natural response. For example, if you’re being chased by a barking dog or you’re in a dangerous situation, you need these hormones to prepare your body for a “fight or flight” situation. But when you’re stressed, your body releases these hormones, even if there isn’t a major physical threat involved.
The result? Higher blood pressure, increased heart rate, and a rise in blood sugar. In this article, we shall discuss stress and blood sugar: an overview.
Stress is a powerful thing, and while we usually think of it as affecting our moods, it can also have profound effects on our bodies, including our ability to regulate blood sugar. As stress hormones are released, our insulin levels drop, which can cause a rise in blood sugar. This can be particularly serious for someone who has diabetes or pre-diabetes.
Let’s take a look at the relationship between stress and blood sugar: how stress causes blood sugar fluctuations, possible complications, and how you can manage both stress and blood sugar levels.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Connection Between Stress and Blood Sugar
- 2 Complications of Stress and Blood Sugar
- 3 Diagnosis of Stress and Blood Sugar
- 4 Treatment of Stress and Blood Sugar
- 5 Coping With Stress and Blood Sugar
The Connection Between Stress and Blood Sugar
Most of us associate spikes in blood sugar with dietary choices, such as eating too much sugar or too many carbs. But many elements can affect how our bodies regulate blood sugar, including dehydration, heat and sun exposure, and skipping meals. Stress, including life circumstances, illness, and lack of sleep, is also a contributing factor when it comes to blood sugar regulation.
When you are stressed, the “stress response” is triggered in your body. This sends a cascade of hormones, including cortisol, to be released. Cortisol can significantly affect our bodies, including our inflammatory response, immune system, and metabolism.
High levels of stress can:
- Elevate cortisol levels, with impacts how our bodies metabolize sugar
- Elevate our glucose (blood sugar) levels
- Inhibit the release of insulin, which regulates blood sugar
- Change our body’s sensitivity to insulin release
- Make our body more resistant to insulin
Additionally, when you are experiencing increased levels of stress, you are more likely to eat poorly, skip meals, and sleep badly, all of which can also contribute to unregulated blood sugar issues.
Certain risk factors may increase the likelihood that you will increase a blood sugar issue related to stress, including:
- Having a history of depression
- Experiencing chronic stress related to work
- Experiencing adversity early in life
- Having the propensity to react to stress by making unhealthy food choices, reducing physical activity, and neglecting to take diabetes medication.
Complications of Stress and Blood Sugar
Both stress and blood sugar changes can have negative effects on a person’s health and well-being.
If you have diabetes, stress can:
- Make it more difficult for you to regulate your blood pressure, and can increase the risk of heart issues6
- Make it more challenging for you to continue your daily routines around regulating blood sugar, and cause your body to wear down5
- Increase your blood pressure, raise your heart rate, and cause a spike in blood sugar5
If you experience a spike in blood pressure as a result of stress, you can experience symptoms such as fatigue or depression. If your blood pressure becomes too low, you may feel jittery, unhappy, and anxious.5
When to See a Doctor
Changes in blood sugar aren’t just unpleasant: at times, they can be dangerous. Please call your healthcare provider right away or go to the nearest emergency if you are diabetic and experience the following symptoms:2
- Racing heart and quick breathing
- Dry mouth and skin
- More frequent urination or thirst for several days
- Breath that has a fruity scent
- Flushed skin
- Abdominal pain
- Achy, stiff muscles
Diagnosis of Stress and Blood Sugar
Stress and blood sugar are connected but require separate diagnoses. Here’s what to know.
Stress isn’t something people usually get diagnosed with. It’s a pretty common mood and emotional state that many of us find ourselves in from time to time. Stress is a typical response to difficult life circumstances, including in relationships, work, or reactions to world events.
Sometimes, however, stress can be chronic, and in this case, it’s possible to be diagnosed with a stress disorder. Two common stress disorders are acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both of these are stress reactions related to traumatic events, but acute stress disorder is diagnosed within about a month of the event, and PTSD is diagnosed when the stress persists past a month.
You would need to go to a primary care doctor or an endocrinologist to get a diagnosis of diabetes or pre-diabetes. Diabetes is diagnosed by evaluating your blood sugar. Various tests are used in a diabetes diagnosis, such as:8
- Oral glucose tolerance test
- Random plasma glucose test
- Fasting plasma glucose test
- A1c test (a blood test)
Treatment of Stress and Blood Sugar
The good news is that both stress and blood sugar complications are treatable. Stress is usually treated with psychotherapy and stress management techniques. Diabetes is treated with medication, along with diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes.
If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, you will need to take a medication called insulin, which helps your body regulate blood sugar. You will also need to monitor your blood glucose levels at home.8
Additionally, you will need to stick to a diet that is low in sugar and carbohydrates but rich in protein, healthy fats, fiber, fruits, and vegetables. If you are overweight, you will likely be advised to lose weight. Your cholesterol and blood pressure will need to be monitored, along with your blood sugars. You should quit smoking if you are diagnosed with diabetes.
If you are experiencing stress, there are several different therapy treatment options that can help you manage your feelings, and react to stress in more healthy and balanced ways. Therapy types that work best for stress include:9
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Interpersonal therapy
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Eye movement desensitization resolution (EMDR)
Coping With Stress and Blood Sugar
Stress can be stressful! And when your blood sugar is affected, this can only exacerbate the stress. Here’s the thing, though: both stress and blood sugar can be managed by making some simple lifestyle changes and by reaching out for support when needed.
Here are some lifestyle changes you can make that will both lower stress10 and blood sugar:2
- Make it a point to get enough sleep every night
- Stay hydrated
- Eat regular meals that are focused on whole foods rather than processed foods
- Take some time each day to relax your mind
- Try mindfulness and meditation
- Refrain from smoking and drinking alcohol
- Exercise daily
- Take mental health days off when you can
- Learn to say no to obligations when you feel overwhelmed
In summary, stress releases cortisol, which can change the way your body produces and uses insulin. This can cause changes in your blood sugar levels, which may be particularly serious for someone who has diabetes. Thankfully, reducing stress can effectively address this problem and can help keep your blood sugar levels in check.
Discovering that your blood sugar fluctuates in response to stress can be distressing in and of itself. Please remember that this is common, and there are simple and effective ways to address it. Most importantly, you should be in touch with your healthcare provider if you notice changes in your blood sugar readings. If you are finding your stress levels difficult to manage, please reach out to a therapist or counselor.