By Dr. Mercola
Stress does not act as a singular force on your body but rather acts like a snowball rolling down a mountain, gradually building in size and speed until it’s virtually impossible to control. As stress builds in your body, it influences everything from your mood and brain function to your heart health and risk of both acute illness and chronic disease, including cancer.
When you become stressed your body also secretes cortisol and glucagon, both of which affect your blood sugar levels as well.1 On a metabolic level, when you’re stressed and your body enters “fight or flight” mode, glucose is released in order to give your muscles the energy needed to run and escape whatever is threatening you. In the modern day, there’s a good chance that threat is more mental than physical, however, which means you won’t need that extra energy after all.
The end result is that your body must produce more insulin to keep your blood sugar levels in check, and when you’re stressed out, your blood sugar levels will probably stay elevated much longer than they would otherwise, ultimately promoting weight gain and Type 2 diabetes.
Blood Sugar Levels Take Six Times Longer to Return to Normal When You’re Stressed
In a segment produced for BBC’s “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor” television series, researchers from the U.K.’s Leeds University subjected Dr. Giles Yeo, one of the show’s presenters, to what’s known as the Maastricht Acute Stress Test. First, Yeo was asked to quickly compute math problems in his head, such as subtracting 17 from 2,043. Along with the mental strain, Yeo then put his hand into a tub of ice-cold water, further stressing his body on a physical level.
Meanwhile, the researchers had measured Yeo’s blood sugar levels following a meal, both on a nonstressful day and on the day of the stress tests. Although the meal was similar both days, Yeo’s blood sugar patterns were not. On the nonstressful day, Yeo’s blood sugar levels rose after the meal and then returned to normal within 30 minutes — a healthy response. But when he was stressed, his blood sugar levels took six times longer, or a total of three hours, to fall back within the normal range.2
It shows just how easily excess stress can throw your blood sugar out of whack, with detrimental effects on your overall health. The longer your blood sugar stays elevated, the more insulin your body will produce. When your cells become resistant to insulin, glucose (sugar) stays in your blood, raising your blood sugar levels and ultimately leading to the malfunction of leptin signaling.
Leptin is a hormone produced by your fat cells. The function of leptin is to tell your brain you have enough fat stored, have eaten enough and to burn calories at a normal rate. Leptin doesn't function only with your metabolism and fat stores, however. It is also involved in your immune system, fertility and regulating how much energy you burn.
Further, elevated blood sugar levels are associated with diabetes and even prediabetes, not to mention that people with higher blood sugar levels scored lower on memory tests, even though their levels were technically still considered “normal.”3 The fact is, anything that causes your blood sugar levels to stay higher longer than necessary is something you should strive to avoid, and stress is high up on that list.
Stress, Mood and Diabetes Are Intricately Linked
When your body is under the stress response, your cortisol and insulin levels rise. These two hormones tend to track each other, and when your cortisol is consistently elevated under a chronic low-level stress response, you may experience difficulty losing weight or building muscle. Additionally, if your cortisol is chronically elevated, you'll tend to gain weight around your midsection, which is a major contributing factor to developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Research published in the journal Stress also looked into whether stress responses are associated with abnormalities in glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity and risk of Type 2 diabetes, concluding that there does appear to be a strong link.
“The results of the present study indicate that NDDM [newly detected diabetes mellitus] subjects display significantly higher chronic stress and stress responses when compared to subjects with NGT [normal glucose tolerance]. Chronic stress and endocrine stress responses are significantly associated with glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and diabetes mellitus,” the researchers wrote.4
Not to mention, if you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes or pre-diabetes, stress hormones can make it more difficult to control blood sugar levels, as well as encourage less-than-healthy lifestyle choices that further add to your risk.
“[R]esearch has indicated that stressful experiences have an impact on diabetes. Stress may play a role in the onset of diabetes, it can have a deleterious effect on glycemic control and can affect lifestyle,” according to a review in Diabetes Spectrum,5 which is why it’s so important to tend to your emotional health in order to protect your physical condition.
There are a number of ways that mental health ties in to diabetes, not the least of which is that managing the condition, or worrying about complications, can lead to stress and anxiety — a condition known as “diabetes distress.” On a physical level, swings in blood sugar can also wreak havoc on your mood.
If you’re under stress and your blood sugar levels are high, for instance, it can make you feel nervous or tired or make it difficult to think clearly.6 Further, people with diabetes who have psychiatric disorders as well are more likely to have poor control of their blood sugar levels.7
Stress and Lack of Sleep Also Make You Fat
The stress-induced pattern of rising insulin levels and decreasing blood sugar can prompt you to feel hunger pains and crave high-carb comfort foods, leading to weight gain.8 In addition, stress can make it harder for you to sleep at night, another harbinger of weight gain. U.K. researchers looked into the connection between how long you sleep (sleep duration), diet and metabolic health among more than 1,600 adults.9
Past research has linked not enough sleep with an increased risk of metabolic diseases, including obesity, and this study found similar results. Sleep duration was negatively associated with body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, which means the longer a person slept, the smaller their waist and lower their BMI were likely to be. Specifically, people who slept for an average of just six hours a night had a waist circumference more than 1 inch (3 centimeters) larger than those who slept for nine hours a night.10
Shorter sleep was also linked to lower levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol.11 In separate research, people who were sleep-deprived ate about 385 more calories than those who got enough sleep,12 while preschoolers who missed their nap and stayed up two to three hours later than normal consumed 25 percent more sugar and 26 percent more carbohydrates than they did prior to the sleep restriction.13
Like stress, lack of sleep also disrupts important hormones — like ghrelin and leptin — and metabolic function. Losing as little as 30 minutes of sleep each night can disrupt your metabolism enough to cause weight gain.
In fact, each half-hour of sleep debt incurred during weeknights raised one study’s participants’ risk for obesity and insulin resistance by 17 percent and 39 percent respectively after one year.14 It’s clearly a vicious cycle, as stress makes it difficult to get the high-quality sleep you need — and the less you sleep, the worse stress can become.
Eating Your Way to a Calmer Mood and Better Blood Sugar Levels
A diet based on real, whole foods, including fermented foods to optimize your gut flora, supports positive mood and optimal mental health, while helping you to bounce back from stress. For example, dark chocolate, berries, organic black coffee, bananas, animal-based omega-3 fats and turmeric (curcumin) tend to boost your mood, whereas sugar, wheat (gluten) and processed foods have been linked to poor mood. At the same time, what you eat can also influence your blood sugar levels for better or worse.
One of the most important dietary recommendations toward this end is to limit net carbs (total carbohydrates minus fiber) and protein, replacing them with higher amounts of high-quality healthy fats, like seeds, nuts, raw grass fed butter, olives, avocado, coconut oil, organic pastured eggs and animal fats (including animal-based omega-3s).
If you’re insulin resistant or diabetic, I also strongly suggest you limit your total fructose intake to 15 grams per day until your insulin/leptin resistance has resolved (then it can be increased to 25 grams) and start intermittent fasting as soon as possible.
Top Methods to Lower Stress for Better Blood Sugar Control
Diet and getting proper sleep are crucial for controlling both stress and blood sugar levels, but beyond this exercise is another factor that cannot be ignored. In one study, unfit but otherwise healthy middle-aged adults were able to improve their insulin sensitivity and blood sugar regulation after just two weeks of interval training (three sessions per week).15 A follow-up study also found that interval training positively impacted insulin sensitivity.
The study involved people with full-blown Type 2 diabetes, and just one interval training session was able to improve blood sugar regulation for the next 24 hours.16 Exercise, while acting as a form of physical stress, is also beneficial for mental health and stress relief. A study by Princeton University researchers revealed that exercising creates new, excitable neurons along with new neurons designed to release the GABA neurotransmitter, which inhibits excessive neuronal firing, helping to induce a natural state of calm.17
In addition to the creation of new neurons, including those that release the calming neurotransmitter GABA, exercise boosts levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. This may help buffer some of the effects of stress. Mind-body exercises, such as yoga, may be particularly beneficial in warding off stress, as may meditation.
People with anxiety disorder who learned mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques like mindfulness meditation did better under stress than those who used other stress reduction methods.18 Interestingly, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is also associated with improved blood sugar control in people with Type 2 diabetes, and a “decrease in measures of depression, anxiety and general psychological distress was observed.”19
Coming full circle, MBSR may also help to improve sleep,20 which in turn will improve your stress levels and metabolic health. It’s important to address stress daily; don’t let it fester unattended until it snowballs out of control. Regular exercise, sleep and healthy eating can go a long way toward this end, but also take timeout of each day for meditation, mindfulness and other activities you enjoy, be it a long soak in the tub or a chat with a friend.
Another simple option you can use to deal with daily stress is the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), which can help reprogram your body's reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life, thereby reducing your chances of experiencing adverse health effects like disrupted blood sugar levels. In the video below, EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman discusses EFT for stress relief, which you can use in combination with other stress-relief options to help your body bounce back from stress.