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Stress is a relatable emotion that we encounter in our daily lives. It's what we feel when we are in danger or need to act quickly. From an evolutionary perspective, the fight or flight response is incredibly useful to help us survive. However, the body’s stress reaction is superfluous when it comes to many of our modern-day stressors (like the stress imposed when we are stuck in traffic). Whether the source is mental, emotional, or physical when we experience stress the body responds by secreting hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. When these hormones are chronically elevated due to repeated stress, negative health consequences can develop. We've all heard that stress can lead to weight gain, but did you know it may also affect your blood sugar levels? In this blog, we will explore the relationship between stress and blood sugar levels, the physiological mechanisms at play, and practical tips to manage stress and maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Stress Increases Blood Sugar Levels
It is no surprise that stress can cause blood sugar levels to rise. In times of stress, the body senses that it needs more energy than normal. This extra demand for fuel triggers an increase in the release of the hormones cortisol and insulin.
Cortisol increases blood sugar levels by stimulating gluconeogenesis (the creation of new glucose) in the liver and peripheral tissue (like muscle cells). It also promotes the storage of fat throughout the body by inhibiting the breakdown of fat into fatty acids, a process that is needed for energy production during times when we are not eating enough food. For individuals who have trouble losing weight despite plenty of exercise and healthy eating habits, chronically elevated cortisol levels from stress may be hampering their weight loss goals.
Stress Decreases Insulin Sensitivity
One of the most significant effects of stress on blood sugar levels is that it can cause insulin resistance. When we are stressed, the body releases hormones that increase blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar. This hormonal release results in an increased amount of glucose in circulation. The pancreas then produces more insulin to help lower the excess sugar and prevent metabolic problems associated with high blood sugar levels (such as hyperglycemia or, eventually, diabetes).
However, when we are under chronic stress for a long period of time—like the 55% of Americans that are stressed during the day—our bodies may become less able to use insulin effectively. This results in blood sugar levels that are consistently elevated, which can lead to developing prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, or type 1 diabetes complications like retinopathy.
Stress Promotes Fat Storage
Stress causes the release of cortisol. In times of stress, the average cortisol level can be up to nine times higher than when we are relaxed. Cortisol is a hormone that promotes fat storage. Cortisol also increases appetite and insulin resistance (which is why you might feel hungry when stressed). This is why it is particularly important to eat a healthy diet and pay attention to portion sizes during times of stress.
Stress Causes Weight Gain
Stress can cause us to eat more, and it can also make us crave junk food. There is a reason they call it “comfort food.” Stress makes people feel like they need a treat, which is why many people turn to sugary snacks when they’re stressed out.
You may also eat more at night as a result of stress. After all, at the end of a busy day, many people choose to unwind by relaxing in front of the TV. That’s when it’s easy to reach for the ice cream to treat ourselves and help us sleep better (or so we think). These sugary treats can spike our blood sugar and lead us down a pathway that promotes inflammation, reduces metabolic health, and can lead to weight gain. If it happens regularly enough, these snacks can be particularly troubling when we are already dealing with high blood sugar levels due to stress.
How can we Manage our Stress and Blood Sugar Levels?
Managing stress can be a challenging task but prioritizing self-care can make a huge difference to our mental, emotional, and physical health. Here are a few suggestions of healthy ways in which we can minimize our stress while also stabilizing our blood sugar.
- Prioritize Sleep
- Reduce Caffeine Intake
- Taking Regular Breaks
- Try Deep Breathing Exercises
- Talk to a Healthcare Professional
- Avoid Known Stressors when Possible
Blood Sugar-Reducing Strategies:
- Prioritize Protein Intake- aim for 20 to 30 grams at each meal
- Increase Physical Activity- particularly high-intensity interval exercise
- Drink a GOOD IDEA- drink 1/3 of a can before your meal and finish it with your food to reduce post-meal blood sugar by an average of 25%
- Eat Carbs Earlier in the Day- as the day persists the body becomes more resistant to insulin
Take Away Message: Stress can Have a Direct Effect on Blood Sugar Levels
Stress is a major cause of blood sugar irregularities. It can increase blood sugar levels and decrease insulin sensitivity, which can lead to fat storage and weight gain. If you’re feeling stressed, try deep breathing exercises or going for a walk to help reduce the levels of a stress hormone, cortisol. Prioritize protein intake, try a GOOD IDEA, perform some high-intensity exercise, or skew carbohydrate intake to earlier in the day to help stabilize blood sugar levels when stress gets the best of us.
Author: Dr. Colleen Gulick