Stress And Diabetes: Can Stress Raise Blood Sugar Levels?

Practicing mindfulness can help you manage your blood sugar levels.

We’re not going to tell you how to live a stress-free life. After all, that’s impossible. And if you’re newly diagnosed with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, it makes sense that you might be feeling on edge, tense and stressed. According to The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people with diabetes are 20% more likely to suffer from anxiety. But is stress and blood sugar related? 

What we are going to tell you is how to better manage the stress that’s in your life so that its negative impact upon your health is minimized. 

Can stress raise blood sugar levels?

You might already know that stress can have an impact on many aspects of your life, from how well you sleep to how much you weigh. And if you have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, you no doubt already know how important it is to keep your blood sugar from dipping too low or spiking too high. But did you know that stress has been shown to make it harder to control diabetes? Stress affects your blood sugar levels. But there are ways to mitigate stress, positively impacting your blood sugar management—and mindfulness can help.

The science behind stress and blood sugar levels

Here’s what’s happening in your body when you experience stress. When you’re overwhelmed or under pressure, your stress hormones (adrenaline, glucagon and cortisol) shoot up in response. At the same time, growth hormone and cortisol levels rise, which causes body tissues (muscle and fat) to be less sensitive to insulin. As a result, blood sugar levels rise; your body thinks it needs more sugar so that you have enough energy on hand to combat whatever stressor you’re up against.

This scenario made sense in caveman days when you did actually need the energy to run away from an animal trying to eat you, but not so much nowadays when your stressor might “just” be a looming deadline or upcoming doctor’s appointment. In other words, the body responds similarly to all stressors, not just ones relating to life or death circumstances. 

Now imagine that cycle happening over and over again when you’re chronically stressed. So even if you’re doing everything right to manage prediabetes or type 2 diabetes — following a strict diet, exercising regularly, taking your meds, you may still have a hard time controlling your blood sugar if you haven’t addressed the chronic stress in your life. 

Mindfulness — An evidence-backed solution

If you want to better control your blood sugar levels, you have to get a grip on (i.e., reduce your) stress. If you have a demanding schedule or hate your job, try to address how to make them more pleasant — whether that’s transferring to a new team or setting up a more sustainable schedule. Emotional stressors, such as dealing with an aging parent or an unhappy marriage, also bear examination. 

Mindfulness — a set of practices centered around “being present” and sustaining intentional, nonjudgmental focus—has been shown to alleviate stress and in turn help people living with type 2 diabetes manage their condition better. A 2018 study, The Impact of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Emotional Wellbeing and Glycemic Control of Patients with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, found that people with type 2 diabetes who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques reported significant reduction in fasting blood sugar and A1C levels as well as lower levels of anxiety and depression.

Therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), has also been shown to reduce anxiety and alleviate stress. Lastly, regular exercise and meditation can help, too.

Embracing mindfulness in your own life

  • Develop a mindfulness practice. Deep breathing is a classic mindfulness practice that is easy to implement and truly works. A 2020 study, Effectiveness of slow deep breathing exercise on decreasing stress levels for patients with diabetes mellitus, found that engaging in deep breathing exercises reduced stress in those living with diabetes. Yoga has been shown to help, too. No matter what mindfulness practice you adopt, the key is to be present in the moment; notice the full sensory experience around you. When we’re not living in the past or in the future, our body’s internal stress response naturally slows down. And remember: You can practice mindfulness anywhere, from taking a walk to doing the dishes.
  • Avoid stress eating. Eating when you’re emotional (this goes for when you’re both happy and sad) can have a negative impact on your blood sugar levels. Emotional eating occurs when you eat as a result of how you feel, not because your body truly needs fuel. And when that happens, you’re more likely to reach for high-fat, high-sugar foods that cause blood sugar levels to rise (i.e. heavily processed foods). Tuning into why you’re reaching for certain foods can help you short-circuit the mood-food chain reaction. This requires you to be more mindful about how stress plays a role in your food choices. 
  • Practice mindful eating. Mindful eating is exactly what it sounds like: you’re being more aware of what you put in your mouth. If you’ve ever gotten to the end of a bag of chips or a carton of ice cream and wondered, “Whoa—I ate all that?!” …then you’re probably not eating mindfully in those moments. With mindful eating, you’re focused on what you’re eating, how much, how it tastes, and how it feels. Mindful eating should be a full sensory experience. And keep in mind: This can also help you indulge without overdoing it. When you’re able to savor a special treat and be fully present while you’re eating it, you’re less likely to binge, according to research

Key takeaways

You can’t just eradicate stress from your life. But by establishing and regularly practicing strategies aimed at mitigating your stress, you can help keep your blood sugar levels more stable — reducing the risk of diabetes. Mindfulness is one such stress management strategy that might be worth incorporating into your weekly routines.  

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