Stress contributes to everything from headaches and bad moods to sleep problems and heart disease. And if you're one of the 422 million people around the world who have diabetes, whatever's stressing you out could also be affecting your blood sugar levels.
Research from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) shows that stress – whether physical or mental – can significantly influence blood sugar levels. While physical stressors, such as illness, surgery or injury, generally cause blood sugar levels to increase, mental or emotional stress can go either way depending on the type of diabetes you have, explains Rachel Johnson, R.D., a registered dietitian specializing in diabetes management at Abbott.
In response to stress, blood sugar levels often increase in those with Type 2 diabetes, the most common form. However, in those with Type 1 diabetes, mental stress can either increase or decrease blood sugar levels, according to the ADA.
The Stress-Blood Sugar Connection
So what’s really happening inside your body when you’re stressed? When you feel stressed, you’re feeling the effects of the body’s “fight or flight” hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. Released when your body perceives a threat (whether that’s a mountain lion or looming work deadline), the hormones trigger your body to release extra glucose, or blood sugar, for a boost of energy, Johnson says. This happens in general for people, but when someone has diabetes, this surge can stay high because the body has trouble taking up and using glucose.
Stress also can affect your blood sugar levels indirectly by causing you to forget about your regular diabetes care routine. When you're stressed out, it can be easy to forget to test your blood sugar or take your meds or insulin on time. Mental stress (as well as the generally busy schedules that go with it) can also affect your activity levels as well as what foods you eat.
Is Stress Behind Your Blood Sugar Swings?
One of the best ways to determine if there’s a stress-sugar connection is with a diabetes logbook. Each day, rate your stress level on a scale of 1-10 (one being no stress and 10 being all-out madness). After a week or two, go back and see if you notice any relationship or pattern between your daily stress levels and blood sugar management, Johnson says.
Discuss your findings with your physician or a registered dietitian to determine the best options for managing your blood sugar levels. Today, health insurance companies and diabetes brands such as Glucerna offer resources that allow you to speak directly to a dietitian for recommendations.
In addition, look at your everyday schedule for other ways to reduce stress.
4 Ways to Reduce Mental Stress
1. Take a breather.
Controlled, deep-breathing exercises reduce levels of physical biomarkers of stress while curbing inflammation, according to 2016 research from the Medical University of South Carolina. Try doing slow deep breaths while relaxing your muscles for five to 20 minutes at a time whenever you’re feeling stressed.
2. Check your schedule.
Look for ways you can streamline your schedule to increase efficiency or get rid of excess obligations, Johnson recommends. Remember, it’s OK to say “no” from time to time.
3. Catch some Z’s.
Lack of sleep can also lead to emotional stress. A study, published in Diabetes Care, found that people with type 2 diabetes who slept less than 4.5 hours a night had higher blood sugar levels than those who slept an average of 6.5 to 7.4 hours a night.
Regular exercise (choose whatever workout you most enjoy) is linked with reduced stress, improved alertness, as well as, concentration and heightened energy levels, Johnson says. The ADA recommends getting 150 minutes or more of physical activity, such as brisk walking per week. This activity should be spread over at least three days per week with no more than two consecutive days without activity. Check with you doctor before beginning an exercise routine.