First of all, it is important to note that stress itself does not cause diabetes but it can contribute to and be a consequence of diabetes.
Diabetes management is a lifelong process and especially at the beginning of the diabetes journey can cause significant stress.
When our grandson was initially diagnosed with type 1 diabetes the whole family was in shock. Our daughter went through a period where she was second-guessing everything she had ever done with that child thinking maybe this caused it or that caused it.
When it comes to type 1 diabetes it is still uncertain what causes it so guessing is rather futile and only leads to dark places mentally.
Everybody has stress in their lives, it is when this stress becomes unmanageable that problems can occur.
In Type 1 diabetes this stress can raise or lower blood glucose levels, and in type 2 it commonly raises blood sugar levels.
What is Stress
Stress is simply being in a state of emotional tension or strain when we feel we are unable to cope with a situation or challenge.
When experiencing stress the body releases hormones that give cells access to stored energy (fat and glucose) to help the body get away from danger. This is commonly known as our ‘fight or flight’ response.
Keep in mind that both children and adults can experience stress.
A school project could cause significant stress to a child, as much as that work deadline causes stress to an adult.
Both physical and mental stress over time can mentally wear us down leading to depression and other mental health issues.
Symptoms of Stress
The symptoms of stress are not always recognizable as stress, they can easily be brushed off as something else.
Stress may reveal itself in these subtle ways:
- muscle tension
- sleep too much or too little
- a general feeling of being unwell
- lack of motivation
It is common for stressed people to engage in unhealthy or out of character behavior such as:
- withdrawing from family and friends
- acting out in anger
- over or under eating
- excessive alcohol or drug use
- tobacco use
Stress and Blood Sugar Levels
A primary reason for this is that stress causes the body to release cortisol (flight or flight hormone).
When cortisol floods our systems we experience an increase in heart rate and breathing.
It also sends glucose and protein stores from our liver into the blood to make energy immediately available to our muscles.
In other words, the body releases sugar into the blood so that energy is available to our whole system to combat the potential threat and run away from danger.
This results in higher blood glucose levels.
Stress Activates Fat Cells
The cortisol in our system also triggers an enzyme in our fat cells that helps relocate fat from storage to deeper fat deposits usually in the abdomen. Stress can cause many people to accumulate more belly fat.
The more stress we have, the more cortisol is released into our body. And the more abdominal fat we will have.
These deeper fat deposits increase the risk of heart disease and stroke but also place certain individuals at a higher risk of developing diabetes.
If you are already a diabetic your condition can become worse because of the overall elevated level of stress and cortisol in your system.
Cortisol also increases food cravings, something that can be already difficult to manage with diabetes, just remember when it comes to food, moderation is key.
Strive for a healthy diet but the occasional indulgence is acceptable too.
Contributes to Insulin Resistance
Cortisol makes it more difficult for the pancreas to secrete insulin, which is what the body needs to move sugar out of the blood and into the cells for energy.
Over time the pancreas struggles to keep up with the high demand for insulin, causing glucose levels to remain high. The cells don’t get the sugar they need and the cycle continues.
This all contributes to insulin resistance which is often a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
With type1 diabetics, their body is unable to produce insulin so unless they inject insulin their blood glucose levels will remain high, risking many complications.
Stress Affects Our Sleep
Stress often leaves us tense and anxious making us have difficulty getting the sleep we need. There have been many studies that have shown the negative health impacts of too little sleep. The impact on diabetes is no exception.
While each of us has unique needs when it comes to how much sleep we need, less than 6 hours a night has been found to contribute to impaired glucose. This is a condition that often precedes type 2 diabetes and can even worsen it.
Also, keep in mind that tired people tend to eat more sugary snacks that can spike blood sugar in an attempt to gain more energy. This further aggravates their diabetes.
We discussed cortisol earlier and another of its functions is to narrow the arteries throughout the body to allow blood to harder and faster through the rest of the body.
During ‘fight or flight’ situations this is beneficial because of the fast delivery of oxygenated blood throughout the body.
Over time, constant stress keeps the blood vessels constricted and blood pressure high.
This high blood pressure (hypertension) may worsen many diabetes complications such as eye disease and kidney disease.
Many people with diabetes eventually develop high blood pressure.
Looking out for one can help prevent or alleviate the other.
Ways to Reduce Stress
Diabetes Canada recommends learning to manage stress since stress can be both a contributor and a consequence of diabetes.
There are several ways to reduce stress in our daily lives including:
- eat a well-balanced diet
- get regular exercise
- frequently monitor blood glucose levels
- take medications on time, huge savings on diabetes supplies here.
- delegate tasks when possible
- learn to say “no” to get a grip on taking on too much
- try yoga or some form of meditation
- join a support group, it helps to realize you are not alone in this struggle
- get professional help. if you are struggling to cope talking with a professional will help
The answer to can stress affects diabetes is a resounding Yes.
There are many ways stress affects diabetes including contributing to the development of impaired glucose and type 2 diabetes.
There has even been a study that suggests high stress in childhood can lead to the development of type 1 diabetes.
Stress can also be a major contributor to making blood glucose levels remain high causing the development of many complications of diabetes.
It is in our best interest to find ways to reduce the stress in our lives.
Eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and a good night’s sleep can go a long way towards helping us cope with daily stresses, preventing the stress from building to unmanageable levels.
Some people find meditation to be an effective tool in stress management.
Seeking a support group or professional when the stress is just too much to cope with.
Taking care of our mental health is a big part of successful diabetes management and should not be neglected.
“I am not in any way a medical practitioner, please do not rely on the information on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or another healthcare provider. We only share our experiences.”
What coping strategies have you implemented in your life?