By Irazema Garcia, First Mile Care DPP Coach

Stress and stressful events are part of modern life. We acknowledge it, and sometimes even equate it with success: Ever bragged about working 60+ hours a week just to get that project completed? Stress has its purpose — like when you have to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision or whip your hand from a hot stove to avoid a burn. But what happens when there is too much stress in your life?

Stress-Diabetes Connection

Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system, activating the fight-or-flight response. This response quickly raises the body’s source of energy — glucose or blood sugar— to help either fight the danger or flee from the danger. This comes in handy when we are faced with a physical threat that might result in a life or death situation. But when the body does this in reaction to chronic stress (stress that happens frequently), an over-abundance of glucose begins flooding the bloodstream. Over time, this can keep glucose levels consistently elevated in the blood stream, leading to prediabetes and perhaps even diabetes. Lowering chronic episodes of stress can, in turn, help regulate blood sugar.

Physical threats to survival were greater for early humans. Today, very few daily stressors require us to fight or flee. Running away from a conference call or a presentation is rarely the wisest option. Neither is sprinting to higher ground when the kids are screaming. And there is no way to win a battle with heavy traffic on the way to work.

Our bodies’ cannot discern between being chased by a saber-toothed tiger and dealing with the morning commute. If we need to outrun a predator or climb from rising flood waters, glucose supplies the necessary energy to do so in order to keep us safe. The surge in glucose gives the body an optimal chance of surviving the threat by giving cells more energy to run or fight (or both).  However, in the case of chronic stress — the kind that elicits a stress response for more than a few moments —the body steadily sends out glucose which ultimately takes a toll on the body.

More Ways Stress Affects Blood Sugar Regulation

Stress can also play a role in lifestyle choices. It leads many people to find comfort in certain foods — generally high-carb, high-caloric fare. “Comfort food” is called that for a reason; it’s commonly associated with soothing emotions. However, those foods also generally raise blood sugar, opening another route for prediabetes and diabetes to develop. By any terminology, too much “comfort” or “stress” eating hinders blood sugar regulation.

Chronic stress can also be associated with fatigue and depression, which can cause people to become less active and lead more sedentary lives. This lack of movement can prove to have a negative effect to prediabetes and diabetes risk because an inactive lifestyle is also detrimental to blood sugar regulation (the more we move, the more glucose is expended).

Ways to Destress

Everyone has different methods to calm stress. Some people find it tranquil to be quiet and alone, while others find the best way to decompress is to be around others. There is no right or wrong way to relax. Below are few ways to destress that may prove beneficial:

  • Shift Viewpoint: Although little can be done in modern-day society to limit traffic or work deadlines, shifting your viewpoint can help lower stress. You may not be able to change the world, but you do have the ability to change your reaction to the situation at hand. Start by visualizing how you can reframe stress-inducing situations into something neutral or positive. Does the presentation you have to give at work need to be a nerve-wracking exercise in anxiousness? Instead, try to frame it as fun opportunity to fill your team in on what you’re working on and are passionate about.

  • Movement: Injecting physical activity into your day can help relieve stress. Do you usually feel better after a walk? Ever noticed how a run helped you figure out the solution to a problem? Movement relieves muscle tension and facilitates deep breathing — both great factors in decreasing stress. Movement also releases endorphins – the neurotransmitters that make you happy, which can aid in stress relief. Physical activity does not have to mean marathons or arduous hikes, short bursts of activity can prove beneficial as well. Any kind of movement helps.

  • Ignite the Relaxation Response: Whether it is through deep breathing, yoga, or visualization (or anything else that calms the mind), the relaxation response can counter stress. It helps to calm both the body and the brain down (especially that inner chatter that can compound stress). Relaxing creates an environment inhospitable to negative stress.

  • Find Your People: Having social support when times get tough reaps great benefits. The emotional support that can be received from being part of a network can reduce tension and help with long-term positive health outcomes. Whether it is finding a support group close to your home or reaching out to family and friends via social media, human support eases stress.

The stress-diabetes connection can be seen from many different angles: The positive and negative roles stress itself, can play in the body, but also the changes long-term stress induces and makes us feel.

Bottom line, one of the best actions to take in terms of lifestyle change is to find ways to destress regularly. Different things work for different people, but finding what works for you (and when) can play a crucial role in diabetes avoidance or management.