The Effects of Stress on People with Diabetes

by IVL

Sweaty palms, flushing in the face, feelings of anxiety… these are just a few of the signs of stress.  For most people, occasional stress is not a big deal, but the effects of stress on people with diabetes are markedly different and more dangerous.  Stress triggers the release of hormones like cortisol that can raise glucose (blood sugar) levels. 

How does cortisol raise blood sugar?

The fight-or-flight response is the body's way of dealing with a stressful event.  The release of cortisol and other hormones creates a rush of glucose to use as energy for fight or flight.  When experiencing short-term episodes of stress, this response is healthy for most people.  However, for people with diabetes, it creates a serious problem.  Diabetic bodies have trouble moving glucose from the bloodstream into cells, so episodes of stress can lead to an excess of sugar in the bloodstream.

For people with diabetes, stress can cause a vicious cycle.  Stress raises blood sugar, and the diabetic becomes even more stressed over high glucose levels.  Chronic stress like that experienced when dealing with relationship problems or caring for a sick loved one can make diabetes management more difficult by taking the focus off of personal health care.

One of the effects of stress is emotional eating, but using food to relieve stress is dangerous for diabetics.  Many comfort foods are high in fat and sugar, which can impact blood glucose and body weight.  When people are overweight, body cells become less sensitive to insulin released from the pancreas and glucose pools in the bloodstream instead of being absorbed by the cells.

What are some stress-relief techniques for managing blood sugar?

Stress-relieving techniques that may help control blood sugar include meditation, yoga, tai chi, and guided imagery.  Exercise also helps relieve stress, and it may offer even more help for people with type 2 diabetes.  Some research indicates that fat cells are more insulin-resistant than muscle cells for people with type 2 diabetes.  Exercise and building muscle appears to lower insulin resistance because muscle cells use up excess glucose in the blood for energy. 

Related:  Health Benefits of Mindfulness Practice

What are some ways to manage blood sugar?

To metabolize carbohydrates, the body converts them into sugar and releases insulin to move sugar into cells.  Because diabetes hampers this process, the sugar stays in the bloodstream.  People with and without diabetes can manage blood sugar by limiting consumption of carbohydrates to fiber-rich, low-sugar forms like oatmeal and fresh vegetables.  Carbohydrates that contain fiber are metabolized slowly, so the rise in blood sugar is gradual.  

Drinking plenty of water also helps keep blood glucose in check.  Water helps the kidneys flush glucose out of the body through urine, and it keeps the bloodstream hydrated.

While some stress is acute or short-term like the stress we experience in traffic, other stress is long-term or chronic.  No matter what the causes of stress or the duration, people with diabetes have to work harder than others to keep it under control.  Following the tips above can help people manage blood sugar and reduce stress for diabetes and good overall health.

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