How Stress Affects Blood Glucose Levels

Losing The Stress, Finding The Balance

Diabetes can be a stressful disease to manage – especially when someone is first diagnosed with it. That's what Carmen Girard discovered when she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in November 2007. Although the disease runs in Carmen's family, her diagnosis came as an unpleasant surprise.

"I work in finance, which is chaotic at the best of times," says Carmen. "So, my diagnosis added a new element of stress to my already- hectic life as a wife, mother and career woman."

In the few months following Carmen's diagnosis, she's made many adjustments and improvements to her eating habits and lifestyle. "My diabetes meal plan keeps me on the right track. I test my blood sugar level regularly. And, on top of that, my husband and kids provide support when I need it."

Carmen has also found effective ways to manage life's everyday stresses, without using food as a crutch. Yet, for many others with Type 2 diabetes, the adjustments aren't that easy to make. The disease itself requires careful and constant management, which can take a toll on individuals and family members. Plus, diabetes can trigger many serious health complications – like heart disease, nerve damage and vision loss, to name but a few.

People living with diabetes often feel stressed and the DAWN (Diabetes Attitudes Wishes and Needs) Study, which was initiated in 2001, provides insight into some of the reasons why.

The DAWN study addressed the perceptions and attitudes of individuals with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Among the findings, 40% of respondents reported being stressed by their diabetes diagnosis, while another 50% worried their diabetes would get worse. Respondents reported that after years of living with diabetes, they still worried about health complications and the social and emotional burdens of managing the disease.1

It's a well-established fact that stress can take a significant toll on the mind and body. While you can't avoid stress altogether, you can learn how to control it and minimize its impact on your overall health. It starts by understanding the very nature of stress.

Stress is triggered by many life events, but there are two distinct forms:

  • Physical stress – Such as injuries and illnesses.
  • Mental stress – Such as work and family pressures, financial difficulties and everyday inconveniences – like a traffic jam.

When most people encounter stressful situations, the body's fight-or-flight response kicks into high gear. For those with diabetes, it can wreak havoc on blood glucose levels. The Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA) advises frequent testing of blood glucose levels – especially during stressful periods. That way, you can identify how your body responds to stress, and make the necessary adjustments to help stabilize your blood glucose level.

If stress is not managed properly, it can lead to depression. Those with diabetes have a higher incidence of depression compared to the general population. So, if you're having a difficult time managing stress, be sure to tell your doctor .

Living: How to tame life's stressful moments

The easiest way to keep stress at bay is to avoid it altogether. Of course, that's easier said than done for most of us. So, what can you do when stress enters your life?

  • Get active. According to the CDA, regular physical activity improves your body's sensitivity to insulin and helps manage blood glucose levels. When stress enters Carmen's life, she goes for a walk or rides her bicycle. You also might try jogging, swimming or a daily dose of gardening. Any ongoing exercise program can help reduce overall feelings of stress. Just remember to ease into new activities and discuss your plans with your healthcare provider.
  • Listen to music: Many studies have shown that music increases feelings of relaxation and calmness. Whether you're listening to a favourite album or playing an instrument, music reduces anxiety, enhances mood and improves sleep. Carmen finds it helpful to keep her radio on at work. "My work environment can get pretty crazy," she says, "and the music relaxes me."
  • Stretch, breathe deeply and meditate: Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi are comprised of gentle movements and deep breathing, which are very effective at easing stress. Deep breathing and meditation on their own will also help you find your inner peace. Look for resources online and in bookstores. Here's a breathing exercise you can do anywhere: Inhale slowly through your nose, filling your lungs to capacity. Then, exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat for 3 to 5 minutes when you feel tense.
  • Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): Deep muscle relaxation is achieved through the sequential tensing and releasing of large muscle groups. Starting with your forehead and working down to your feet, increase tension in each muscle for 15 seconds, and then decrease tension for 30 seconds. Learn more about PMR.
  • Laugh: Never underestimate the power of a good belly laugh. Numerous studies have shown that laughter eases tension. Laughing also triggers the release of endorphins, the body's feel-good chemicals. So, by all means, visit a comedy club or rent a funny flick – not just when you're feeling down, but any time.
  • Build a strong support network: Perhaps you've had a lousy day and need to vent. Or, maybe you're dealing with an issue that requires professional help. It's important to surround yourself with friends, family and other supportive people. 

Eating: How to avoid anxiety eating

Many people turn to comfort foods during stressful situations. But it's not an effective way to manage stress, especially for anyone with diabetes. Veering away from your meal plan can send blood glucose levels soaring – and make bad situations worse.

The next time stress has you reaching for the cookie jar, follow Carmen's lead and reach instead for your walking shoes, soothing music or a cup of herbal tea – all proven ways to reduce stress.

Even when things aren't stressful, you should strive for a healthy diet and balanced lifestyle. This can help you cope better with stress when it does creep into your life. These three tips can do a world of good for your physical and mental well-being:

  1. Adhere to your diabetes meal plan with regular meals that include fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy products. Visit the Kraft Diabetes Centre for healthy recipes you can easily work into your meal plan.
  2. Monitor your blood glucose level regularly.
  3. Find stress-busting techniques that work for you – and then apply them whenever you feel tension creeping into your life.

Connecting: Where to find additional information

The Internet is a great place to learn more about diabetes, stress and ways to take control of your health and well-being. Here are some good places to start:

Canadian Diabetes Association
Canadian Mental Health Association
Health Canada
Kraft Diabetes Centre

Source: 1Funnell, Martha M. "The Diabetes Attitudes, Wishes, and Needs (DAWN) Study." Clinical Diabetes. Associate Ed. Martha M. Funnell. American Diabetes Association. 22 June 2008.