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Stress and diabetes – what to know and how to manage it

16 July 2020

Everyone has felt “stressed out” at some point. But what does it actually mean? How can it impact your diabetes?

In this article, I will take you through the fundamentals of stress, how it can impact your diabetes management, and most importantly, tips to reduce and manage the stress in your life.

What is stress?

Stress is usually a physical or mental reaction to something happening in your life. The body can become physically stressed by an injury or illness, for example. You can become mentally stressed by situations like a demanding job, feeling overwhelmed by a particular situation, money problems, dealing with your diabetes, and the list goes on.

Stress is a natural bodily response to change, good or bad. Think of it as the body’s alert system. You might have heard it described as the ”fight-or-flight” response.

When something happens and you need to react, stress hormones are released (including adrenaline and cortisol) to give you an extra boost of energy to endure that particular change or event.

When you slam your brakes in traffic to avoid getting into an accident, there is an adrenaline rush that helps your body react and deal with that sudden event. Your heart is racing, and unfortunately, your blood sugar will likely rise quickly, too.

Stress as an immediate response to change is normal and nothing to stress over.

However, when that stress level becomes a regular part of your life, it can create a few issues -- especially for a person with diabetes.

Repeated stress can lead to a whole slew of complications both physically and mentally.

Some of the physical symptoms include headaches, digestive problems, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, sexual dysfunction, and insomnia. The psychological symptoms can include depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety and worry.

How stress can impact blood sugars

Since all hormones can impact your blood sugar levels, bouts of stress can impact your diabetes management.

Some hormones -- like adrenaline -- increase your blood sugar by signaling your liver to release glycogen, which is simply stored glucose.

Your body can produce adrenaline in response to riding on a roller coaster, getting into a car accident, cheering wildly for your favorite football team, or during an intense argument with your partner. Positive and negative experiences call for adrenaline.

Other hormones, like cortisol, increase your blood sugar by creating significant insulin resistance. Without cortisol, we wouldn’t be alive, but too much cortisol or sudden increase in your cortisol levels is a well-known culprit for high blood sugars.

When your blood sugar is low, for example, cortisol is actually essential (along with fast-acting carbohydrates) to helping it rise back to target. Without cortisol, your blood sugar would plummet.

Hormones are a critical part of keeping our body healthy, and they protect us during times of stress, but as people with diabetes our bodies don’t compensate by producing additional insulin. Instead, we have to do the best we can to react and adjust our diabetes management to get our blood sugars back into our goal range.

Talk to your healthcare team about your stress and the high blood sugars that follow it. Learning how to adjust your medication or therapy to compensate is a worthwhile skill!

How to reduce daily stress levels

Reducing the amount of stress in your life (or how you think about things you cannot change) is a worthwhile goal -- especially as a person with diabetes.

Bouts of stress are normal and can be hard to avoid, but if you are regularly stressed by something, it is probably time to work on reducing or eliminating that stress.

The ABCs to reduce chronic stress

Address the problem

If you are regularly stressed about your life situation then something’s got to give, and it shouldn’t be your health.

Try thinking about what the root cause of your stress is and find ways to put yourself at ease with it. This is no easy task, if it was you probably wouldn’t be stressed in the first place. But spending the time to identify your stress triggers is the first step to relieving your stress.

It might be beneficial to find someone to help you work with through this – be that a trained professional, a friend, or family member.

Be active

Exercise can be an excellent way to relieve stress. Exercise is such an effective tool for managing stress because it causes the body to release endorphins. Endorphins are basically the body’s painkiller hormones. They also feel good to your brain and are known for that post workout “high.”

Aside from endorphins, exercise can also help you sleep better! And better rest will inevitably help your body deal with stress.

There is no set amount of time that you need to exercise to see the impact but try starting with 20 minutes or more per day -- which can add up to the NHS recommended 150 minutes per week. You can do structured exercise in a gym or at home (you can find simple ideas for home workouts HERE). A simple brisk walk on your lunch break or after eating dinner can also do wonders for your mind, your body, and your diabetes!

Calm yourself

Stress impacts your whole body and techniques for calming your nervous system can be highly effective. Great tools can be meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises.

You don’t have to be a master yogi or meditator to see the benefits. Try downloading a (free or paid) guided meditation app. Just 5 minutes of meditation or guided breathing can have a big impact on your stress levels. A weekly yoga class could be great too or try yoga at home with this great Yoga for Diabetes video -- HERE.

While Addressing the problem and removing the stress is optimal, that is not always possible. For example, we can’t all just leave our stressful jobs. If you can’t fully eliminate the stress, use Being active or the Calming techniques to reduce your stress and its overall impact on your body and your diabetes.

The views expressed in the Accu-Chek blog are not necessarily those of Roche Diabetes Care Limited or our publishers. The content is provided for general information only. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely – you must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content. Although we make reasonable efforts to ensure that the content is up to date, we make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content is accurate, complete or up-to-date.