How Stress Affects Diabetes

The Link Between Stress and Blood Sugar

Feeling frazzled? High stress can make your blood sugar levels soar. Here’s how to bring both down again
WebMD Magazine – Feature


Sherri Buffington knows right away when she’s stressed out.

“I’ll start to feel hot,” she says. Once the warmth floods her body, she tests herblood sugar. It’s almost always high.

Buffington isn’t imagining the connection. Stress is known to spike blood sugar, also called glucose. “It’s a very common occurrence,” says Kevin Pantalone, DO, staff endocrinologist at Cleveland Clinic. “Stress can increase levels of hormones in the body, particularly cortisol, which can make blood sugar rise.”

Hormone release is part of the body’s fight-or-flight response, which readies it to take action at the first sign of trouble — or bolt in the other direction. Cortisol and other hormones release a surge of energy in the form of glucose (sugar), which the body can use to fight or flee.

That rush of glucose is no problem if your body’s insulin response is working correctly. But for people with diabetes, whose bodies can’t move glucose as efficiently into cells, it leads to a buildup of sugar in the bloodstream.


The Long-Term Connection Between Stress and Blood Sugar

“The stress can make my numbers go up faster than if I eat a cheesesteak and French fries,” Buffington says.

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Yet food is another important part of the equation. “Patients who are under stress may turn to food as a means of stress release,” Pantalone says. “And if they make bad choices, that can certainly cause significant elevations in blood sugar.”

Stress can also make you neglect your health. “Stress makes managing diabetesmore difficult,” Pantalone says. When your attention is focused on a bad job or troubled marriage, you have less energy to think about taking your insulin or eating healthy meals.

A chronic condition like diabetes can launch you into a never-ending cycle. You get stressed and your blood sugar rises, which stresses you out even more. Buffington says she’s found relief from a progressive muscle relaxation CD. “If I do get stressed out or upset about something, my numbers may go up a little, but not as much,” she says.

Baby Steps to Ease Stress

Want to get a better handle on your stress? Pantalone shares a few tips.

Be realistic. The idea of running 3 miles a day might sound like a good plan. But if you can’t devote even 10 minutes to a daily workout — much less a couple of hours — your best ambitions will quickly go bust. “If you set the bar too high, you’re setting yourself up for failure.” Choose a more realistic amount, like 15 or 30 minutes a day to start, and stick to it.

Take small steps. You don’t need to overhaul your entire life. “Small things add up,” he says. Meditate for a few minutes a day. Start a new hobby, such as sewing or crossword puzzles. Memorize a poem that gives you peace. Take a 10-minute walk to get your mind off diabetes.

Assemble a dream teamTreating diabetes shouldn’t be a solo effort. Your team should include a doctor, nurses, diabetes educators, a social worker, and your family and friends. They all should be ready to support you and cheer you on when you need encouragement.

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