Chronic stress does not directly cause high blood sugar, but it can influence blood sugar levels as well as the body’s ability to maintain blood sugar balance. Acute stress however via the action of cortisol does cause high blood sugar. Acute stress induced hyperglycemia is part of the ‘fight or flight’ response. Persistent activation of the fight or flight response can, over time, result in the development of diabetes. Dealing with high blood sugar in combination with life’s daily stressors can itself become a strenuous task. However, it is important to understand how persistent stress can alter blood sugar regulation in order to implement beneficial strategies that can help you cope.
Before going into a discussion about how stress can negatively impact blood sugar levels, let’s take a closer look at what happens to the body during a stress response.
What Is the Stress Response?
The stress response, also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, is a rapid reaction system in the body. It alerts the brain and body when a stressful, dangerous, or life-threatening event or thought has developed. When a stress response is initiated, it may also lead to the release of certain hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which increase blood sugar .
Our organs and body systems are programmed to react to stress in ways that should help minimize it. However, prolonged stress can work against the body and lead to physical problems, especially if constant stress causes adrenaline or cortisol levels to remain high. Physical issues that may develop include an increased heart rate, weight changes, constipation, and muscle aches — all of which can negatively influence blood sugar regulation [1-3].
How Does Persistent Stress Impact Blood Sugar?
Physical and emotional reactions induced by stressful situations lead to an increase in hormone release, particularly the stress hormone cortisol [1-4]. Over time high cortisol levels can disrupt insulin signaling in the body, making it hard for the pancreas to produce enough insulin to overcome cellular insulin resistance . Proper insulin signaling ensures that the body’s cells use glucose (blood sugar) for energy instead of allowing it to accumulate in the blood, which can lead to dangerously high blood sugar [1-4].
Furthermore, persistent stress is linked to physical inactivity for some individuals. Weight gain due to a lack of exercise may contribute to impaired insulin sensitivity — a serious problem in which cells gradually become more and more resistant to insulin . Stress may even alter the appetite by causing some people to overeat, while others may eat less, skip meals, or forget to take their medication. Each of these factors can disrupt proper blood sugar balance.
In addition, prolonged stress can weaken the immune system or activate abnormal immune responses that lead to the destruction of the cells that typically respond to insulin [1-3]. This means that in the absence of healthy coping skills, constant stress can disrupt metabolic processes that are responsible for maintaining blood sugar balance.
Overall, it is important to find ways to address stress in a positive manner that prevents it from negatively altering the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar [3, 5]. Working with a healthcare professional or taking supplements that promote blood sugar balance can help reinforce healthy blood sugar levels even when stress develops.
- Lloyd C, Smith J, Weinger K. Stress and Diabetes: A Review of the Links. Diabetes Spectr. 2005;18(2):121-127.
- Kisch ES. Stressful events and the onset of diabetes mellitus. Isr J Med Sci. 1985;21:356-358.
- Vialettes B,Ozanon JP, Kaplansky S, Farnarier C, Sauvaget E, Lassman-Vague V, Vague P. Stress antecedents and immune status in recently diagnosed type 1(insulin-dependent) diabetes mellitus. Diabetes Metab. 1989;15:45-50.
- Kawakami N, Araki S, Takatsuka N, Shimizu H, Ishibashi H. Overtime, psychosocial working conditions, and occurrence of non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus in Japanese men. J Epidemiol Community Health. 1999;53:359-363.
- Surwit RS, van Tilburg MA, Zucker N, McCaskill CC, Parekh P, Feinglos MN, Edwards CL,Williams P, Lane JD. Stress management improves long-term glycemic control in type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2002;25:30-34.