Stress and Diabetes

When you have diabetes, stress is a double whammy. While the medical community is reluctant to say stress can cause diabetes, they believe it may play a role in its onset—plus, it can make the symptoms worse. Also, diabetes can increase stress in your life, as does any chronic illness.

For most people, stress is unavoidable, but there are ways you can reduce it in your life. And when you're living with diabetes it's essential that you try.

How Stress Affects Diabetes

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), stress—physical, emotional or lifestyle—influences your blood glucose levels in two ways. It may prevent you from taking proper care of yourself, such as drinking too much, not being physically active, or forgetting to monitor your blood glucose levels or take insulin injections.

Hormones produced when you're stressed, such as epinephrine and cortisol, can also directly alter your blood glucose levels. Normally these hormones help your body respond to "flight or fight" situations by releasing energy—glucose and fat—to the cells. As a result your glucose and ketone levels fluctuate and in some cases, may become high. Also, stress can make your insulin less effective, which further limits your body's ability to regulate blood glucose levels.

The research on stress and diabetes is conflicting, but it's evolving. In a 2005 study published in Diabetes Spectrum, researchers from the Open University in Milton Keynes in the U.K. point out that much of this research has centered on children and adolescents, and different studies have produced different results. Also, in some cases, it isn't just stress that affects diabetes—it's how each person perceives certain stressors and the coping strategies used.

However, the researchers conclude that for people with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes, stress can have harmful effects on blood glucose levels, and interventions that help to prevent or cope with stress can have an important positive effect on quality of life and glycemic control.

7 Ways to Manage Stress and Diabetes

1. Set goals. Vague goals won't cut it when it comes to stress and diabetes. Researchers at the Open University recommend that instead of setting "lose weight" as a goal, you should make realistic, measurable and achievable goals, such as "I will walk 20 minutes each day on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday." Instead of "Take better care of my diabetes," set a goal of "I will drink diet cola instead of cola with sugar." Measurable goals are more likely to keep you motivated so you can better cope with diabetes and stress.

2. Identify situations that cause stress in your life. Be as specific as possible and develop better strategies for coping. For instance, if you feel overburdened at work, take a time management seminar, delegate, or negotiate a work-at-home arrangement.

3. Ask for help. At home get your partner or children to pitch in more on a daily basis, or consider hiring professional help. Ask siblings to help with elderly parents, or look for support networks in your community.

4. Exercise more. During exercise your body releases a host of feel-good hormones - endorphins and serotonin. These hormones improve your ability to cope with diabetes, make your body more efficient, and help you to relax.

5. Practice daily relaxation. Learn meditation techniques you can do at home (such as deep breathing for 10 minutes, three times a day), or join yoga or tai chi classes.

6. Eat a healthier diet. Some foods can exacerbate stress, such as sugar and caffeine, so try to eliminate or limit them. Plus, better nutrition naturally helps to control your blood glucose levels.

7. Find creative solutions to managing your diabetes. If stress occurs because you can't remember to take your diabetes medications, buy a watch with an alarm to prompt you. If your weight is the problem and you can't stick to a diet or exercise regimen, sign up for a weight-loss program and hire a fitness coach.

Study References

Journal: Diabetes Spectrum Vol. 18, Number 2, 121-127
Study Date: 2005

Study Name: Stress and Diabetes: A Review of the Links

Website: Cathy Lloyd, PhD; Julie Smith, BSc, RGN, MSc; and Katie Weinger, EdD, RN