Could Stress Be Causing Diabetes?

Could Stress Be Causing Diabetes?

It’s not surprising that higher levels of stress cause blood glucose to rise. It all makes sense that in the presence of a perceived threat, your body reacts by increasing stress hormones, including cortisol, to prepare it for “fight or flight,” part of the physiological mechanism that evolved to ensure survival. Glucose released from glycogen stores provides muscles with the fuel needed to respond meaningfully to threats; formerly, those threats were short-lived. Now, they may linger for weeks, months, or much longer, and our evolved adaptive mechanisms destroy us instead.

How do we go from stress to insulin resistance?

Stress causes your adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, which in turn causes a steep rise in blood glucose. Because survival depends on that glucose being directed to skeletal muscle, other tissues become insulin resistant, temporarily unable to use available fuel. In the short term, it’s a useful adaptive response, but in the modern world stress lingers.

We respond by eating simple sugars and blood glucose stays elevated for long periods. Nerves and blood vessels are damaged, hemoglobin is glycosylated, and LDL cholesterol and triglycerides spike. The pancreas responds by secreting insulin, but it is largely ineffective; target cells are indifferent to it. Excess glucose is directed to adipocytes — fat cells — and visceral fat increases. Eventually, visceral fat secretes pro-inflammatory compounds, with deleterious systemic effects: chronic inflammation, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes!

There is a psychological component as well. Many people respond emotionally to continuous stress by overeating, especially refined carbohydrates, exacerbating the problem. They may become less active, even depressed, and that in turn makes them more likely to ignore what needs to be done to maintain balance and reduce stress: eat healthfully and exercise regularly.

A useful way to understand stress is as perceived threat divided by perceived control. If we think the threat we face is serious and feel powerless to remove it, that’s more stressful (the quotient is higher) than if we feel capable and better able to surmount the challenge (the denominator is larger relative to the numerator). I hope the math didn’t stress you out too much!

What can I do to break the cycle of stress to diabetes?

In order to break the back of this vicious cycle, you’ll have to attack it at both physiological and psychological levels:

  • Practice mindfulness and meditation daily to elicit a relaxation response.
  • Stay busy, productive, and socially connected, and don’t isolate yourself from a community of caring.
  • Make a plan and take concrete steps to remove or lessen the effects of the stressor.
  • Eat a low glycemic load diet with lots of phytonutrient-rich foods and antioxidants.
  • Walk more, sleep moderately, and drink plenty of water.
  • Take up intense exercise several times per week. Heavy resistance training will improve your body, bust stress, and make you feel stronger, more capable, and able to meet any challenge. Perceived control — the denominator — will increase, so the quotient — stress — goes down.

Exercise every day. Eat healthfully, stay focused, and surround yourself with positive people! And when stress comes to call, send it packing…after all, it is your life.