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Stress and diabetes: Is one the cause of the other?

Emotional stress is the feeling of psychological strain and uneasiness produced by situations of danger, threat, and loss of personal security. This form of stress typically results from large amounts of pressure to perform well or from significant life changes. When faced with these situations, cortisol, a stress hormone, is released and can have different effects on the body. But can any of these effects be linked to type 2 diabetes? Let’s find out.

What are the effects of stress on the body?

Have you ever been in an intense situation and noticed your heart rate accelerated, your breath quickened, and your muscles tightened? That response is called “fight-or-flight” and takes action when various hormones, including the stress hormone cortisol, are released. Fight-or-flight is a valuable response every now and then but can be harmful to your body if experienced every day. The influx of hormones can suppress your immune system and make you susceptible to disease

Studies support the connection between emotional stress, depression, and diabetes. Chronic emotional stress has been established as a risk factor for depression, and depression is a known risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Another study has shown that high cortisol levels might prevent insulin-producing cells in the pancreas from working correctly. Insulin is a vital hormone that regulates your blood sugar and is a critical player in developing type 2 diabetes.

Can stress raise your blood sugar?

Cortisol is insulin resistant, meaning it prevents the hormone from being produced. Insulin is the primary ingredient for getting rid of excess sugars and keeping your blood sugar levels under control. Without the proper insulin release, more glucose stays in your bloodstream, leaving the levels imbalanced. High blood sugar levels can lead to type 2 diabetes when left untreated. 

Stress can also indirectly cause type 2 diabetes when people overeat. During extreme stress, people may consume more unhealthy food or just more food in general. It is common for people, during very stressful periods, to avoid exercising and taking their medications, leading to high glucose levels and unhealthy habits. 

How to reduce stress and tension

Many people deal with stress daily because of work, home life, financial situations, or health conditions. Minimizing the effects of these daily stressors can significantly impact overall well-being. Here are a few stress-relieving practices that you can make as short or long, easy or complex as you would like. Give these a try:

  • Deep breathing. Along with improving your lung function, deep breathing exercises can reduce your anxiety and allow for better stress management. When practicing, it’s important to clear your mind and focus on the physical act of breathing.
  • Meditating. You can do this exercise for as long as you can handle it. Start small and slowly build your way to meditating for more extended periods. Benefits of this practice include anger control and stress reduction.
  • Practicing yoga. Downward-facing dog, plank, and child’s pose are all simple yoga moves to get you started. Yoga helps improve blood flow and lung function and eases the effects of anxiety and depression.
  • Spending time outdoors. Being surrounded by trees and natural greenery lowers your cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. Go for a walk around your neighborhood, exercise in your backyard, or head out to a local, state, or national park for the day.
  • Exercising. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, a hormone that goes up against stress. Performing activities like pilates, running, cycling, and team or individual sports are great ways to get your mind off things and reduce stress.

Be on the lookout for common symptoms of diabetes like frequent urination, increased hunger, fatigue, and blurred vision. Schedule an appointment with a St. Luke’s Health endocrinologist if you have concerns or questions about diabetes and its management. For more tips on coping with stress, reach out to a Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group primary care physician.

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