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While stress doesn't directly cause diabetes, it can make people develop habits that puts them at risk.

How Does Stress Affect Diabetes?

Scientists first suggested a connection between stress and diabetes as early as the 17th century. It seems that there are both direct and indirect links between the two. So, how does stress affect diabetes?

In this article, we explore the relationship between stress and diabetes and explain what to do to help.

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a common metabolic condition that involves the hormone insulin. Insulin is responsible for helping cells absorb glucose (sugar) from the blood and convert it into energy.

There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. People with type 1 diabetes cannot make insulin and must use injections to keep their blood sugar under control. People with type 2 diabetes may be able to make some insulin but their cells cannot use it effectively. Over time, they may stop producing the hormone altogether and require insulin injections.

Although the origins of type 1 and type 2 diabetes are different, both conditions can cause high blood sugar (hyperglycemia).

The most common symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Excessive urination.
  • Increased hunger and thirst.
  • Weight loss.
  • Fatigue.
  • Delayed wound healing.
  • Genital itching or frequent yeast infections.
  • Blurred vision.

Doctors can diagnose diabetes using a test called HbA1c, which measures a person’s blood sugar levels over the previous two to three months.

What is Stress?

Stress is a general term used to describe a state of physical or psychological distress. It may be a response to illness, injury, work or relationship issues, financial difficulties, or worrying about the future. Even everyday annoyances like being stuck in traffic or late for a meeting can cause people’s stress levels to rise.

From an evolutionary perspective, stress is a useful thing. It enables us to react to potential threats by triggering what is known as the “fight-or-flight” response.

On one hand, this is useful as it enables us to make split-second decisions about whether to face a dangerous situation or flee. However, if we are under long-term stress and never switch out of fight-or-flight mode, various problems can occur.

Some of the most common symptoms of stress include:

  • Muscle tension.
  • Headaches.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Fatigue.
  • Feeling generally unwell.
  • Irritability or restlessness.
  • Reduced motivation.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.

Unfortunately, most of us have to deal with stressful situations daily. Could our increasingly hectic lifestyles be one of the reasons that diabetes is on the rise? You will find out when we answer, “How does stress affect diabetes?”

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What is the Connection Between Stress and Diabetes?

The fight-or-flight response influences the body in several ways. One of its key effects is releasing the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline), glucagon and cortisol. These chemicals tell our cells to release glucose and convert it into energy. They also reduce the effects of insulin, further increasing the amount of glucose in the blood.

People with diabetes may be unable to remove this excess glucose efficiently, causing the blood sugar to remain raised. Therefore, stress can lead to hyperglycemia, especially in type 2 diabetes. However, people with type 1 diabetes may also experience hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) when under stress.

In either case, stress interferes with the way the body’s cells utilize insulin and glucose. So, can stress cause diabetes or make its symptoms worse?

Can Stress Cause Diabetes?

Researchers have linked stress, anxiety, depression, sleep problems and anger with an increased risk of diabetes. However, many believe that it is not a direct cause.

Chronic stress can cause people to alter their behavior and lifestyles. For example, they may eat unhealthy food, exercise less, or increase their alcohol or tobacco use. All of these factors could potentially contribute to diabetes development in the long run.

Does Stress Cause Diabetes Symptom Flare-Ups?

People with diabetes have to deal with the same everyday stresses that everyone experiences. However, they have the added pressure of having to monitor their blood sugar regularly, watch their diets and possibly take daily medication. Furthermore, being diagnosed with a chronic health condition can be extremely stressful in itself.

Some people find this difficult to cope with and may experience something known as “diabetes distress.” It could cause them to neglect their diabetes care; for example, not checking their blood sugar, exercising regularly, or eating the right foods. Increased alcohol and tobacco use can also have a negative impact.

Therefore, it is essential that people with diabetes find effective stress-management techniques to avoid raising their blood sugar and risking future complications.

How to Manage Stress and Diabetes Symptoms

There are many ways to manage stress and there is no one-size-fits all approach.

Therefore, it may be necessary to experiment with several methods to find a combination that works. Some of the most frequently recommended stress-management techniques include:

  • Taking time out to rest and do something enjoyable each day.
  • Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation and mindfulness.
  • Physical activity, including cardiovascular exercise or more gentle practices like yoga.
  • Aiming to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night.
  • Managing your time effectively and delegating where possible.
  • Asking for support from family, friends and colleagues.
  • Learning to accept things that cannot be controlled.
  • Talking over problems with a trusted friend or therapist.
  • Saying no when necessary.

A useful tip for people with diabetes is to keep a record of your stress levels alongside your blood glucose tests.

Try making a note of what is going on in your life and rating your mood on a scale of 1 to 10 each time you perform a test. Over the course of a few weeks, you may see a pattern emerging. This could help you to determine what is causing stress in your life and how it is affecting your blood sugar. You can then take steps to address the source of the stress and see if things improve.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by your diagnosis or treatment, discuss your concerns with your diabetes team. There are also plenty of online and in-person support groups that may help.