How does diabetes and stress affect blood sugars?

6 Jan 2023
Navin Khosla medical writer
Navin Khosla
Medical Writer
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Feeling stressed is stressful and it can be difficult to pinpoint why exactly we feel this way and what the root cause is.

The recent pandemic has undoubtedly increased people’s stress levels and other mental health issues. Whether it is financial, health, social, or even just feeling like we carry the weight of what the world is going through right now. It has not been easy, and it is completely normal to be feeling stressed. Throw a chronic illness into the mix and it is a whole other ballgame!

Living with type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes adds a lot of pressure and varying levels of stress to daily life. Both physical stress, emotional stress and mental stress can cause changes in your blood sugar levels and just like diabetes, it affects everyone differently. All too often, however, the correlation between stress and diabetes management outcomes is discussed with healthcare professionals or even online. Stress can cause blood sugar levels to rise significantly, or fall dramatically causing major hypos; either situation is not ideal.

How can stress affect diabetes?

Stress affects my diabetes in various ways. If I am worrying about something or having a bad day with anxiety, my blood glucose levels are stubbornly high. If I am upset or if I cry, my levels can run very low, making it difficult to function. This is less common for me though. It is stress-induced highs that I have to contend with more regularly than I would like.

Living with multiple chronic conditions while trying to work full-time, and live my life, can sometimes feel overwhelming. There are a lot of plates spinning, and my diabetes management has been interesting, to say the least. My treatment of these stubborn highs is so different day to day, as sometimes, no amount of insulin will bring my levels down, and I essentially just have to ride it out. On other days, I will take a correction dose and my blood sugar will just plummet out of nowhere, leading to a massive hypo, and then my levels skyrocket again because I am still stressed. Those days are really difficult and challenging to deal with because I feel like a yo-yo!

Talking about this online, and how stress combined with everything else affects my blood sugar levels has been invaluable in learning ways to cope with this. It is refreshing to know I’m not alone and that there is help out there that can be tailored to your individual needs.

For people with diabetes, managing stress is important. That’s because stress can have a direct impact on blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and heart rate.

The Effects of Stress on Diabetes

1. Increased blood sugar levels: When you have chronic stress, your body goes into a fight or flight response. This causes the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which can raise blood sugar levels.

2. Unhealthy coping mechanisms: Some people cope with stress by overeating, not taking care of themselves, or engaging in other unhealthy behaviours leading to burnout. These coping mechanisms can have an effect on blood sugar levels.

3. Poor self-care: Stress can also lead to poor self-care in people with diabetes. This means not managing diabetes as well as you should or not taking care of yourself in general. Poor self-care can lead to serious health complications over time.

4. Worsening diabetes symptoms: In some cases, stress may worsen diabetes symptoms like fatigue and anxiety. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing these symptoms so that they can help you manage them.

Tips on managing stress

While getting outside and walking is a huge help for me, my top recommendations for stress management and effective ways to relax and reduce the physical symptoms of stress on the body (high blood sugars, nausea, tense muscles, tension headaches) are:

  • Using the Now Patient app: Now Patient is really helpful for inspiring me to just live my life as best I can, without huge expectations. Their mindset for not making people feel bad for having a particular food, or for not penalising users if they do a correction is so important and just reassures me when I have a bad day. It also shows me the information I can use to feel slightly less stressed
  • Apple Music Essentials, Pure Calm playlist: This playlist is a game changer. I will play this periodically throughout the day, or sometimes just at night when I’m winding down. There’s a whole variety of music styles and genres to choose from, including nature sounds
  • Journaling: Sometimes just getting all the thoughts in your head out onto paper can make such a difference. It helps me think objectively and calmly about what it is that is troubling me and prioritising what I need to give my energy to or not
  • Calm app: I absolutely love their Sleep Stories to drift off to sleep! They are so effective at making my mind and body completely relax, and I always end up having a really good sleep that night, waking up refreshed (as refreshed as you can be when living with diabetes) the next morning
  • Exercise: Regular physical activity can help reduce high-stress levels by releasing endorphins (feel-good chemicals) in the brain. It also has a positive effect on reducing obesity and enhancing well-being
  • Meditation and mindfulness: These practices can help you focus on the present moment and clear your mind of racing thoughts
  • Deep breathing exercises: This relaxation technique encourages taking slow, deep breaths to help relax your body, calm your mind and improve overall wellness
  • Yoga: Yoga combines physical activity with deep breathing and mindfulness to help with stress reduction
  • Counselling or therapy: Speaking with a counsellor or therapist can help you identify and cope with the sources of your stress
  • Join a support group: In a supportive environment, you’ll be able to share your experiences with others who understand what you’re going through. You’ll also have the opportunity to learn from others about how they manage their stress. Most importantly, you’ll know that you’re not alone in your struggle. If you’re interested in finding a support group, your doctor or diabetes educator can help you get started
  • Avoid known stressors: Try to avoid stressful situations if possible. If you can’t avoid them, take steps to reduce the stressors in your life. Second, make sure you have a support system in place. Talk to your family, friends and loved ones about what you’re going through and ask for their help when you need it. Finally, take care of yourself both physically and emotionally. Exercise, eat a healthy diet, and get enough sleep. And don’t forget to give yourself time to relax and unwind every day

Talking about stress and chronic illness is something I feel quite comfortable with. I am always eager to learn more about different methods and ways of dealing with all of them. If you are struggling, feel free to reach out, or maybe even try creating your own self-care routine. It’s not going to solve all issues but it certainly helps and takes a little bit of the load off. Take it one day at a time, and know you are doing great!

Note: Everyone’s reaction to stress in relation to diabetes management is different. This is Charlie’s personal experience. Yours may look different, and that’s ok, too! Now Patient is here to support you either way. 

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