Stress and Diabetes – What is the connection?

Symptoms of stress in diabetes

Stress – Can you simply laugh it off?

Stress can be exasperating, anxious, fearsome, frustrating, and depressing at the same time. Try soothing someone who is totally stressed up – it would be like teasing a wild beast.

Someone said “cope up with stress – as some stones turn into diamonds under pressure.” Pat came the reply “What about the other stones that turned into dust?”

We are all from Stress and the City. Just about everyone these days is stressed. From children to the elderly, everyone has a beef with the world and they just can’t stop thinking about that. In a stressful situation, it is like having a vitriolic substance flowing through the system wreaking havoc.

Take the example of the diamond and dust. Different people react to stress differently leading to different results. One person starts binging on ice creams while the other might resort to channeling energies during a stressful situation.

Obviously, stress does take a toll on a person’s health. However, did you know that stress and diabetes have a deep connection? Did you know that some types of stress affect your diabetes?  Let’s find out more. But before that, spare a minute to take this small questionnaire to know about your stress levels.

Stress Scale – Where do you stand?

Try to answer these questions with numbers 0 to 4.

  • 0 = Never
  • 1 = Very rarely
  • 2 = Sometimes
  • 3 = Often
  • 4 = Quite often

If you can do this exercise mentally, it gives you a clear picture of your stress.

In the past 30 days:

  1. How often do you get upset with things that happened unexpectedly?
  2. How often did you feel nervous or stressed?
  3. How often could you control your irritations?
  4. How often did you get angry with things out of your control?
  5.  How often do you have unexplained body pains, nervous sweats (palms sweating) or stomach quivers?
  6. How often do you skip meals or exercise due to over commitment at work?
  7. How often do traffic jams, noises, or people’s behaviors irritate you?
  8. How often do you experience sleeplessness or excessive sleep?
  9. Do you feel rewarded for the efforts you put in at home or at work?
  10. Do you feel that life-changing events have worn you down?
  11. Do you feel anxious about the future?
  12. Do you have memories that strain you?

If your answer was between 1 and 4 for any 5 questions, then you may be experiencing symptoms of stress. You might most likely have issues with workload, over commitment, physical ailments, and psychological or social distress. You might also have trouble with relaxation, empowerment, self-actualization, social support, and enjoyment at work.

What is stress?

Stress is the reaction of the body or mind to any kind of situation that requires change or adjustment. This is caused due to our responses to physical, mental, emotional, and even social situations. Stress is part of everyday life, and can be caused due to positive or negative changes in life.

So, it is possible for a person to be stressed due to a physical ailment, sleep deprivation, issues in relationships, a promotion, or even overconsumption of media!

Our bodies and minds are designed to experience stress, and react to them. Stress can keep us alert, out of danger, and even motivated. Stress can be physical and psychological. Physical exercise, exertion, and extreme weather conditions are known to cause physical stress.

While people can cope with some amount of stress, chronic stress without proper relaxation can lead to many psychological and physical ailments.

Types of stress

  • Acute stress
  • Episodic acute stress
  • Chronic stress

How does the body respond to stress?

It is common for people under stress to have increased heart rate, tensed muscles, and sweating. This is because of the response of the body to a particular situation. Responses like fight-or-flight are deeply ingrained in our instincts. This occurs when we perceive danger. In this response, our bodies give us a sudden boost of energy either to fight or escape a situation.

In all the three types of stresses, our bodies react in such a way that there are synchronized changes in hormonal secretions, and changes in the nervous system, cardiovascular system, and of course the immune system.

In the case of acute stress, our bodies respond by increasing the activity of certain hormones. The first response starts in the brain with activity in the pituitary-adrenal axis and is the primary neuroendocrine response during stress. Endocrinologists say that certain hormones experience increased activity during stressful times. These include:

  • Cortisol
  • Catecholamines
  • Vasopressin
  • Gonadotropins
  • Thyroid hormones
  • Growth hormones
  • Prolactin
  • Insulin      

Changes in body during stress

  • Increased cardiac output
  • Increased blood supply to the brain
  • Increased blood supply to the skeletal muscles
  • Vasoconstriction
  • Brochodilation
  • Retention of sodium
  • Reduction of intestinal motility
  • Increased blood glucose levels
  • Promotion of lipolysis (using fat to generate energy)
  • Change in immune system
  • Redistribution of energy in the body

 What happens to the body during chronic stress?

Though responses to stress are normal, when there is persistent stress and the body has to continuously respond to this stress, it can lead to maladaptation. Continuously having increased levels of hormones, increase in heart rate, and changes in the immune system can cause a lot of harm to the body. It can lead to many conditions like:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Upper respiratory diseases
  • Gastric disorders
  • Chronic inflammation
  • High blood pressure
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Increased risk of heart attacks and stroke
  • High blood sugar levels
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Maladaptive behaviors that lead to physical health issues
  • Depression
  • Post traumatic stress disorder

What are the symptoms of stress?

  • Increased heartbeat or racing heart
  • Unexplained pains and aches
  • Sweating in palms
  • General exhaustion
  • Trembling
  • Dizziness
  • Grinding teeth
  • Clenching jaw
  • Eating disorders
  • Gastric issues like reflux disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Decreased libido

How does stress lead to diabetes?

Diabetes is characterized by chronic high blood sugar levels. It leads to conditions like diabetic retinopathy, diabetic nephropathy, cardiovascular diseases, and stroke. Type 2 diabetes generally starts with prediabetes in which the body experiences impaired glucose tolerance. Later, this condition progresses to insulin resistance in which tissues of the body do not respond to insulin leading to high blood sugar levels.

In people with chronic stress and emotional stress, the mind’s ability to cope with anxiety and stress is reduced. This leads to metabolic chain reactions and metabolic pathways that snowball into high blood sugar levels and ultimately diabetes.

People who have a family history of diabetes, and obesity also tend to get diabetes quicker when they have chronic stress

Since stressful situations cause decrease in insulin levels and increase in blood sugar levels, chronic stress leads to type 2 diabetes.

Overactive hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal endocrine system in chronic stress leads to a chain reaction leading to type 2 diabetes

Maladaptive behaviors like eating disorders, smoking, substance abuse, and psychological issues in stress increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

People experiencing symptoms of stress are generally prone to avoid treatment when they experience any of the symptoms of diabetes. Moreover, people with diabetes also tend to get affected by chronic stress.

What types of stress affects your diabetes?

Endocrinologists and diabetologists have established the fact that stress can lead to poor blood sugar control. It can reduce the efficacy of diabetes treatment and increase the dosage of diabetes medications.

Stress causes increase in blood sugar levels. Chronic stress in type 2 diabetes can lead to poor behaviors that can prevent a person from taking care of proper diabetes diet, self-monitoring, and adherence to medications.

Added to that, symptoms of stress like sleep problems, depression, eating disorders, and changes in hormonal activity cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels making it difficult to control diabetes.

Physical stress like illnesses, injury, and surgeries are known to increase blood sugar levels because of complex mechanisms of stress and immune systems

Mental and emotional stress is also directly linked to type 2 diabetes. It can even increase blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

Work-related stress leads to poor diabetes control due to erratic work hours, untimely food consumption, and lack of exercise.

Poor sleep which is a major symptom of stress and is known to increase cytokine levels and disrupt the immune system leading to poor glycemic control and high HbA1c levels.

Since many types of stress affects your diabetes, it is very important to reduce your stress levels in order to avoid complications of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

How to reduce your stress levels?

When you reduce your stress levels, your long-term diabetes control improves automatically. You would be able to reach your target blood sugar and HbA1c levels.

In order to reduce your stress levels, you first need to understand that you are under stress. If you experience any of the symptoms of stress, consult your diabetes doctor to talk about stress management.

Primary stress management

Stress management first starts by avoiding stressors (things, people, events, and situations that cause stress). This is preventive care. In this approach, time management, planning, redefining roles and responsibilities play a major role. With proper planning, one can avoid a clash between career, family, and your diabetes.

Secondary stress management

In the second approach, it is more about coping with stress. Finding proper ways for relaxation, finding meaning in things you do, and getting support from family, friends, offices, and communities is important in order to cope with stress and concentrate on diabetes care. With problem-solving abilities and adaptive behaviors, one can balance work, family, and diabetes regimen.

Tertiary stress management

Finally, you may need tertiary management in order to reduce your stress levels and care for your diabetes. This includes cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness therapy, and biofeedback.

Apart from these, deep breathing, yoga, physical activities, hobbies, and getting good sleep can go a long way to reduce your stress levels and to bring your HbA1c levels in target range.