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Stress and Diabetes

Stress, both physical and mental, can send your blood sugar out of whack. If you have diabetes, try these tips to keep stress under control.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It's hard to dispute that most of us live life at breakneck speed. It's the nature of a fast-paced society, where numerous family, social, and work obligations can easily overpower your precious time and resources. But for people with diabetes, both physical and emotional stress can take a greater toll on health.

When you're stressed, your blood sugar levels rise. Stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol kick in since one of their major functions is to raise blood sugar to help boost energy when it's needed most. Think of the fight-or-flight response. You can't fight danger when your blood sugar is low, so it rises to help meet the challenge. Both physical and emotional stress can prompt an increase in these hormones, resulting in an increase in blood sugars.

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People who aren't diabetic have compensatory mechanisms to keep blood sugar from swinging out of control. But in people with diabetes, those mechanisms are either lacking or blunted, so they can't keep a lid on blood sugar, says David Sledge, MD, medical director of diabetes management at The Ochsner Clinic Foundation in Baton Rouge, La. When blood sugar levels aren't controlled well through diet and/or medication, you're at higher risk for many health complications, including blindness, kidney problems, and nerve damage leading to foot numbness, which can lead to serious injury and hard-to-heal infections. Prolonged elevated blood sugar is also a predecessor to cardiovascular disease, which increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

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"In diabetes, because of either an absolute lack of insulin, such as type 1 diabetes, or a relative lack of insulin, such as type 2, there isn't enough insulin to cope with these hormones, so blood sugar levels rise," says Richard Surwit, PhD, vice chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center and author of The Mind Body Diabetes Revolution.

Anything upsetting like going through a breakup or being laid off is certainly emotionally draining. Being down with the flu or suffering from a urinary tract infection places physical stress on the body. It's generally these longer-term stressors that tax your system and have much more effect on blood sugar levels.

The problem may be compounded because under these pressures, you may lose your appetite and skimp on eating, or reach for not-so healthy quick fixes like candy or chips. Some people actually "stress eat" (overeat during stressful periods). Others skip their daily workout because they're too strained or run down to keep it up, which can create a vicious cycle since exercise is an excellent way to lower blood sugar.

Stress-O-Meter

"The most important thing is to learn what it feels like when stress hormones are elevated," Sledge tells WebMD. For some diabetic people, prolonged illness or distress will keep their blood sugar levels up for lengthy periods of time. Often insulin will be needed or adjusted during this period, so recognizing periods of stress is crucial for people with diabetes.

Since stress has virtually become a way of life, you may not even notice you're frazzled. A lot of people will identify stressors such as an illness in the family (something large) but may not recognize the stress of the holidays or a hectic time at work (something smaller or shorter in duration). Being in tune to your stress level and how you feel when the going gets tense is important. One good gauge is writing down your stress level in a journal each time you check your blood sugar. Many glucose meters have the capability to enter personal notes and data when you perform checks, or jot it down in a stress journal. "Once you begin recording stress levels, most people with diabetes figure out pretty quickly what makes their blood sugar go up," says Surwit.

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

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If the level is below 70 or you are experiencing symptoms such as shaking, sweating or difficulty thinking, you will need to raise the number immediately. A quick solution is to eat a few pieces of hard candy or 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey. Recheck your numbers again in 15 minutes to see if the number has gone up. If not, repeat the steps above or call your doctor.

People who experience hypoglycemia several times in a week should call their health care provider. It's important to monitor your levels each day so you can make sure your numbers are within the range. If you are pregnant always consult with your health care provider.

Congratulations on taking steps to manage your health.

However, it's important to continue to track your numbers so that you can make lifestyle changes if needed. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Your level is high if this reading was taken before eating. Aim for 70-130 before meals and less than 180 two hours after meals.

Even if your number is high, it's not too late for you to take control of your health and lower your blood sugar.

One of the first steps is to monitor your levels each day. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

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