Can Stress Cause High Blood Sugar?

Both emotional and physical stress can be detrimental to the body in many ways. One of the effects it could have on health is a spike in blood sugar levels. When the body experiences high levels of chronic stress, it releases more cortisol, the primary stress hormone. A higher serum cortisol level causes the body to decrease insulin secretion. Insulin helps bring sugar into cells from the bloodstream, where it's used for energy. Without the proper release of insulin, more sugar remains in the bloodstream and blood sugar levels become imbalanced.

Stress can affect blood sugar both directly and indirectly. Its effects can also vary depending on the type of diabetes a person has. Chronic stress can lead to prolonged high levels of cortisol and ultimately a lowered insulin secretion in the long run. This makes stress both dangerous for those with diabetes and a possible risk factor for its development.

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How Stress Affects the Body

When the body is under stress, it releases cortisol. Cortisol is synthesized from cholesterol and then released from the adrenal glands. The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is a unit in the brain comprised of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands, is what regulates the production of cortisol and how much of it is released during periods of physical and emotional stress.

When the body sends signals of stress—both emotional and physical—it releases cortisol to help the body respond to a perceived threat, control blood pressure, and reduce inflammation. It is the hormone that is used for the fight-or-flight response so if there is any immediate danger, the body will be ready to face it or run from it.

Cortisol can also encourage the liver to release glucose and fatty acids to help give the body the energy it needs to deal with stress. From an evolutionary standpoint, the release of cortisol to deal with stress was important for survival. However, times have changed and those types of threats to life are now, for the most part, nonexistent. This means that cortisol is released and not used by the body in ways that it's meant to be used in some situations.

Types of Stress

Stress can be broken up into two categories; emotional or mental stress and physical stress. Emotional or psychological stress tends to originate internally. This type of stress can occur for many reasons. Some reasons, such as nervousness for a job interview or becoming angry in traffic, can lead to an emotional stress response, as can losing a loved one or going through a traumatic event.

Physical stress, on the other hand, comes from external sources such as strenuous exercise, prolonged physical activitiy, or physical traumas and injuries. Both types of stress, when experienced long-term, can lead to various negative health effects and diseases such as cardiovascular events, cancer, immune system suppression, and diabetes.

Stress In People with Type 1 Diabetes

Stress can affect those with type 1 diabetes by both increasing and decreasing blood sugar. In the case where it lowers blood sugar levels, chronic stress can lead to a syndrome known as adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue is where prolonged exposure to stress drains the adrenal glands, leading to a low cortisol state. In those with type 1 diabetes, the underproduction of hormones such as cortisol can cause an imbalance in hormones that are meant to regulate blood sugar levels.

Research has also looked at whether stress can cause diabetes. Many studies have postulated that chronic stress especially can contribute to the onset of type 1 diabetes in those who are already susceptible to developing it.

Hypoglycemia (Low blood sugar)
  • Hunger

  • Irritability

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Fatigue

  • Sweating

  • Confusion

  • Fast heartbeat

  • Shaking

  • Headache

Hyperglycemia (High blood sugar)
  • Extreme thirst

  • Dry mouth

  • Weakness

  • Headache

  • Frequent urination

  • Blurry vision

  • Nausea

  • Confusion

  • Shortness of breath

Stress in People with Type 2 Diabetes

For people with type 2 diabetes, high levels of stress can lead to an increase in blood sugar levels. When there is a high level of cortisol in the body, it causes body tissues to be less sensitive to insulin. Therefore, more blood sugar is available in the bloodstream. When this happens, blood sugar levels become imbalanced and can reach dangerously high levels, especially if it is left untreated.

Other Ways Stress Causes High Blood Sugar

There are other ways that stress can lead to spikes in blood sugar. During periods of stress, people may participate in behaviors that could lead to high blood sugar such as emotional overeating of refined carbohydrates or foods that are high in added sugars. People may also fail to exercise or take their medications when they’re supposed to. Since stress has the ability to change healthy habits, these factors can all lead to elevated blood sugar levels.

Stress can also affect sleep because stress and sleep are both controlled by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. When a person is under high stress and the axis is encouraging the extra production of cortisol, changes in the axis occur. This leads to problems with getting quality sleep as well as changes in sleeping patterns. When a person isn’t getting enough sleep, it can cause glucose intolerance, which describes metabolic conditions that cause high blood sugar levels.

What to Do if You Have a Blood Sugar Spike

For those with diabetes, having a blood sugar spike can be dangerous because too much sugar in the blood passes into the urine. This triggers the body to filter out the fluid, which could lead to dehydration or a diabetic coma.

In the event that blood sugar levels spike because of stressors that cannot be managed, it’s vital to make managing your blood glucose a priority. You can do this by focusing on things you can control, such as your diet and exercise, checking your blood sugar regularly, and taking your medications as instructed by your physician.

How to Manage Your Stress Levels

Some forms of stress cannot be managed, especially if they are not frequent in nature such as a one-time traumatic event or an accidental injury. Other types of stress, such as taking care of family, work stressors, or any other day-to-day stressful situations, will likely be there permanently or semipermanently. These types of stressful events are the ones that need to be managed as best you can.

To do this, you can proactively plan ahead. This means being prepared for the regular stressors of life and managing your time, reading self-help books, or minimizing the source of stress as much as possible. Calming exercises such as yoga and meditation have also been proven to reduce stress levels. You will also want to avoid indulging in unhealthy behaviors such as overeating. It may seem comforting at the time, but it will not help to relieve the stress you are experiencing.

Setting realistic and manageable goals is also a big stress reducer for those with diabetes. Instead of focusing on a large and vague goal such as losing weight, setting a goal of walking for at least a half-hour every day on specific days of the week will be much more achievable.  

 A Word From Verywell 

Stress is a normal part of life and no one can avoid it all the time. This is why it’s vital to protect yourself from the repercussions of stress by having a plan in place to help manage both stressful situations and spikes or drops in blood sugar levels. It can be difficult, but it’s not impossible to achieve if you make your health your first priority when stress is thrown at you.

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