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The invisible effect of stress on your blood sugar levels

Today, on World Diabetes Day, a clinical psychologist explains how increased stress can trigger high blood sugar levels

An effective stress management programme that incorporates self care, physical exercise and mindfulness techniques can help reverse high blood sugar levels in the body.(Pexels/Natalia Vaitkevich)

By Neha Verma

LAST PUBLISHED 14.11.2023  |  03:00 PM IST

Living with diabetes is a complex and demanding journey requiring vigilant monitoring of blood sugar levels, strict medication management, and adherence to dietary restrictions. While the physical aspects of diabetes management are crucial, the intricate relationship between stress hormones and blood sugar levels in individuals with diabetes often remains overlooked. Understanding this connection is pivotal in comprehending the holistic management of this chronic condition.

The association between stress and diabetes is multifaceted and can significantly impact one’s well-being. Chronic stress can trigger the release of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, into the bloodstream. This physiological response, commonly known as the “fight or flight" is the body’s mechanism to cope with challenging situations. While this mechanism aids in providing the necessary energy to deal with stress, it can also have adverse effects on our blood sugar levels. 

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In fact, research indicates that stress can adversely affect individuals with diabetes in several ways, highlighting the intricate interplay between stress hormones and blood sugar levels.

Effects of stress 
Increased cortisol and adrenaline: First, stress-induced elevation of blood sugar levels is a direct consequence of the increased release of cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prompt the liver to release more glucose into the bloodstream, providing the body with additional energy to cope with the stressor at hand. However, this can result in hyperglycemia, which poses significant risks for individuals already struggling to manage their blood sugar levels effectively.

Increased belly fat: Chronic stress can also disrupt the body’s metabolism, leading to weight gain, particularly around the abdominal area. This phenomenon, commonly referred to as the ‘Stress Belly’ is attributed to the influence of cortisol on appetite regulation, causing an increase in cravings for high-calorie, unhealthy foods. Thus, unhealthy dietary habits further complicate blood sugar management and exacerbate the risk of developing insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance: Additionally, sustained stress can impair insulin sensitivity, rendering the body less responsive to the glucose-regulating effects of insulin. This insulin resistance impedes the efficient conversion of glucose into energy, ultimately contributing to persistent hyperglycemia and potentially increasing the likelihood of developing prediabetes or exacerbating existing diabetes.

Disturbed sleep: The impact of stress on sleep patterns further complicates the management of blood sugar levels. Disturbed sleep resulting from stress can lead to glucose intolerance, a condition that hinders the body's ability to regulate blood sugar effectively. Such disruptions in sleep patterns have been linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, underscoring the critical role of stress management in diabetes care.

Unhealthy lifestyle: Further, high stress levels can trigger detrimental lifestyle behaviours, including unhealthy eating habits, sedentary lifestyles, and substance abuse, all of which can significantly compromise blood sugar control and exacerbate the progression of diabetes.

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It is important to recognize that not all stress is negative. Positive life changes, such as getting married, starting a new job, or relocating can also induce stress and contribute to fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Consequently, individuals with diabetes must remain vigilant and proactive in monitoring their blood sugar levels during both positive and negative life events.

Need for a stress management plan
Given the intricate link between stress hormones and blood sugar levels, it is imperative for individuals with diabetes to develop effective stress management strategies to mitigate the impact of stress on their overall well-being. Practicing mindfulness techniques, engaging in regular physical activity, and prioritizing self-care can significantly alleviate the negative effects of stress on blood sugar levels and promote better overall health outcomes.

Incorporating stress management techniques into daily routines can significantly enhance the quality of life for individuals with diabetes. By fostering a proactive approach to stress management and diabetes care, individuals can empower themselves to better navigate the challenges associated with this chronic condition and improve their overall well-being. It is crucial to understand that seeking support from healthcare professionals and loved ones is a sign of strength, not weakness, and can significantly contribute to effective diabetes management and improved quality of life.

Neha Verma is a clinical psychologist and Head - Department of Psychology & Wellbeing at Fitterfly HealthTech, Navi Mumbai.