Is Stress The Worst Thing For Your Blood Sugar?

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It's impossible to argue with the fact that blood sugar problems are on the rise, and that means we're all becoming more aware of our intake of sugars, simple carbs, and other foods that can contribute to insulin resistance. But while food is an undeniably important part of preventing diabetes, there's another factor that's causing our blood sugar to rise all over the country—and it has nothing to do with soda, candy, or white bread. It's stress—and it might be the worst thing out there for your blood sugar.

Were you aware that your blood sugar rises when you become stressed or anxious? If the answer is no, you're definitely not alone. Most of us know that stress can be terrible for our overall health, but you might not have made the connection between stress and blood sugar just yet.

How are chronic stress and blood sugar related?

It's important to understand the connection between your stress levels and your blood glucose for a few reasons. For starters, high blood sugar can lead to many diseases, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In addition, even if you're trying to combat blood sugar issues by adopting a low-carb diet, a keto diet, or an intermittent fasting plan—stress could be sabotaging your efforts by spiking your blood sugar even when you're not eating or eating only fat and protein.

I'm a big fan of IF, and when I did my own check a few days ago, I noticed that when I was stressed from getting a poor night of sleep, my blood sugar jumped. This is concerning for me because in my family, every single person on my father's side has type 2 diabetes.

Can your "fight or flight" response trigger high blood sugar?

It might seem surprising that there's such a strong connection, but when you learn about the physiology of the stress response, it makes a lot of sense. When you're stressed your body activates its "fight or flight" physiological response. Part of this response involves your body releasing blood sugar into your bloodstream so that you can use it immediately in an emergency situation. For example, if you were running away from a dangerous situation, you would need that quick energy provided by glucose in your blood. A problem occurs, however, when you're always stressed. When this happens, you get a constant blood sugar release, which causes more insulin to be released as well.

This high insulin state, called hyperinsulinemia, basically causes your body to try to force glucose back into cells. Insulin is also one of the hormones that signals to your body to store fat, which explains why people often gain weight during a stressful time in their lives—even if they don't change their eating habits.

If you were to look inside the body while all this is occurring, you would see the brain perceive stress or anxiety and release cortisol from the adrenals as a result. Then you would observe a message from the brain travel to the body to release blood sugar and increase liver gluconeogenesis—a process that regenerates glucose. Once the stressful event is over, the signal stops.

This is fine if it occurs infrequently, but for most of us, this is happening a few times a week, daily, or even hourly! It can leave your body really confused and with a lot of unnecessary glucose floating around in the bloodstream that the muscles and body do not actually need.

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Is stress the worst thing for your blood sugar?

All in all, this connection explains why people often have high-blood-sugar-related problems even when they're taking steps to clean up their diet and lifestyle. In fact, many experts—including me!—believe that stress and sleep have the largest impact and blood sugar levels. Maybe even more than the meal you last ate!

So what can you do about it? We can't avoid stress altogether, but I recommend taking note of the stress- and anxiety-provoking situations you encounter regularly. For me, working out early in the morning has become too stressful and forces me to skimp on sleep. As someone who is trying to do everything I can to prevent diabetes, I decided the increased stress to get to a workout is not worth the benefit of that workout. Evaluate your life and make moves to reduce negative stress as much as possible. Your blood sugar will be healthier for it.

Amy Shah, M.D.
Amy Shah, M.D.
Amy Shah, M.D. is a double board certified MD with training from Cornell, Columbia and Harvard...
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Amy Shah, M.D.
Amy Shah, M.D.
Amy Shah, M.D. is a double board certified MD with training from...
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