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Everything You Need to Know About How Stress Affects Prediabetes

Written by
Team Nutrisense
Reviewed by
Amanda Donahue
a person covering their head with their hands, looking stressed out

Did you know that more than one in three adults in America have prediabetes? According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it affects 96 million American adults, with 80 percent of them unaware that they have the condition. Prediabetes is a health condition defined by blood sugar levels higher than the normal range but not high enough for a diabetes diagnosis. There are also ways you can reverse prediabetes before it leads to diabetes. 

While not every instance of prediabetes is due to your lifestyle, several lifestyle factors can influence the condition. One of these is stress—something we've all experienced at some point or another. While stress is part and parcel of life and a little stress won't immediately cause prediabetes, consistently high levels of stress may lead to it. Certain hormones released when you're stressed can develop insulin resistance, leading to very high glucose levels in your bloodstream. 

An obvious way to eliminate the problem is to cut out stress, but this is often easier said than done. An excellent way to find out how to reduce how much stress your body is absorbing is to find and address its underlying causes. It's also important to know exactly how stress affects your body and its relation to prediabetes to make informed lifestyle choices. Read on to find out more!

Exploring Stress and Prediabetes

a person looking stressed out

An increased heart rate, excessive perspiration, fatigue, tummy aches—stress can affect your body in surprising ways. When stress affects your body consistently for too long, it increases the secretion of certain hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, leading to health issues like prediabetes.

When you experience stress, your hypothalamus reacts by sending hormone signals to your adrenal glands, which are organs that release an abundance of hormones. These hormones prepare your body for danger, but if there are constantly high levels of them in your bloodstream, they may lead to insulin resistance. To avoid this, it's a good idea to learn how to address and manage stress, which puts you at an increased risk of such health issues. 

First, it's vital to learn more about why your body reacts the way it does when you're stressed. In stressful situations, you trigger a biological response that stimulates the release of hormones and chemicals that prepare the body for a fight or flight response. For example, when a bear runs toward you, stress triggers the release of adrenaline. It gives you an energy boost that helps your body react quickly and have the strength to run as fast as possible to get away from the danger it perceives. But if you encounter bears, it's better to back away slowly and carefully! So while your stress response can be a good thing in certain situations, it's not always best to listen to it. 

Long-term activation of this stress system can also have detrimental effects on your health. Here's how to think about that: You can divide the main signs into three categories: cognitive, emotional, and physical. 

a list of three categories of stress

Unfortunately, people prone to high-stress responses often find comfort in things that may not be as good for their health. These include excessive eating or not eating at all, a lack of sleep or too much sleep, alcohol and nicotine intake, and sometimes depression.

What is the Relationship Between Stress and Prediabetes?

a person looking down and holding their head with hands

As we mentioned, stress is not always a bad thing. Without stress, we wouldn't react to dangers, life's challenges, or for some people, be able to meet deadlines. So, the right amount of stress can improve performance and help you with daily life in some situations. However, stress should be temporary, and it shouldn't make you feel ill. After adrenaline and cortisol hit, your heart and breathing rates should decrease, and insulin should reduce your glucose levels. Here's what effect it can have if this doesn't happen. 

Insulin resistance

If your cortisol and adrenaline levels are high for a long time, they can produce insulin resistance. Insulin helps glucose travel into your bloodstream and then to your cells to provide your body with energy. If there is not enough insulin to transport glucose, it remains in your bloodstream, causing high blood sugar. It can lead to prediabetes, diabetes, weight gain, high blood pressure, fatigue, and weak immunity.

a diagram showing how your body goes through 3 phases of stress

Once you reach the exhaustion phase in the image above, you can begin to give in to harmful coping mechanisms that put you at an increased risk of prediabetes.  

Weakened Immune System Responses

a person sitting on the floor and sneezing

During a stress episode, the concentration of pro-inflammatory cytokines and glucocorticoids in your body rises. Cytokines are crucial receptors that coordinate immune responses in your body and play a critical role in controlling your immune system. However, long-term stress leads to high levels of various glucocorticoids (like cortisol), which reduces the number of immune cells. It means that the immune system will become weaker over time, leaving your body more prone to infections.

Higher Cortisol Levels = Higher Blood Sugar

Stressful situations trigger the release of cortisol, a type of stress hormone that stimulates the release of glycogen, which is the glucose deposit from the liver. The sugar spike from your blood gives you the energy boost you need to react to stressful situations. However, constant stress can negatively impact long-term health. High sugar levels in the bloodstream can cause prediabetes. And, if stress is a continuous part of life, prediabetes can turn into diabetes.

Increased Cravings for Carbohydrates

a person eating waffles with strawberries

Emotional eating is a common symptom of and response to stress. High cortisol levels can trick the brain into thinking that the body doesn't have enough energy to fight the danger, making you crave sugar. After the ingestion of carbs, your brain stimulates the secretion of serotonin, the happiness hormone that stabilizes your mood. Serotonin helps you sleep well, positively impacts mood, and improves digestion. 

As Nutrisense dietitian, Amanda Donahue explains, “I call this riding the "blood sugar roller coaster." It involves consuming a bunch of refined/high sugar carbs, which leads to a large spike, and then typically a quick and dramatic dip. A lot of the time, big energy swings can be felt with these types of fluctuations in glucose values. It can be a vicious cycle of a bunch of ups and downs because when we feel that low, our first instinct is to grab more quick carbs to give ourselves that energy "boost," restarting the cycle!”

Tips for Managing Stress

a person meditating

Now that you know more about stress and its relationship with prediabetes, it's vital to learn how to manage it. Here are a few tips to help you manage stress and, in turn, manage your glucose levels

Track your stress: Try using a journal to keep track of what triggers your stress daily. For example, if you feel anxious about walking on a particular street, avoid it and find another route. Also, check your glucose levels with a tool like a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to see if the change has led to any improvements.

Find a stress-relieving activity: Engage in a sport, try a new hobby or focus on an activity that takes your mind off the stressful situation. Remind yourself to do that activity every day to get away from your routine for at least an hour.

Break away from routine: Consider taking a break from your daily routine. Travel somewhere new to get out of your comfort zone or take a breather from the stress of everyday life.

Take a breather: Learn how to manage stress wherever you are with breathing and meditation techniques. Even 15 minutes a day will allow your mind to relax and give you the chance to step away from the responsibility and chaos of life for a bit.

Engage with others: Meet with family or friends, and spend time around people who make you feel relaxed. Play board games, watch a movie or have a family meal together.

Re-evaluate your career: If work is a stress factor, talk with your supervisor to reduce your work hours or workload. If these changes don't improve your wellbeing, or if the career you're in is too stressful for you, consider switching jobs. Remember to prioritize your health as much as you can—work shouldn’t be more important than your health, but you will also have the ability to do your job well if you’re less stressed!

Put yourself first: Focus more on yourself and create a healthy lifestyle and dietary pattern. Exercise regularly, sleep more and improve your diet to minimize stress responses.

Cut out bad habits: Reduce your alcohol intake, try to cut out cigarettes if you're a smoker, and curb any binge-eating habits you may have. While all these habits can comfort you only for a short period, they do more harm than good in the long run.

Last but not least, remember to ask for help whenever you need it. If overwhelming stress is starting to affect your mental health, it's always best to have someone to talk to rather than try and deal with things on your own. If you think you need professional help, consider calling one of the hotlines on this list, or text NAMI at 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor for free, 24/7. Or, call the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST for free mental health information, referrals, and support from a mental health professional.

How Not To Deal with Stress with Prediabetes

a person laying on the floor, looking stressed out

Prediabetes is a health condition that can lead to diabetes, so it's essential to recognize and address it before it does. It's helpful to monitor your blood glucose levels and track changes as often as possible. Also, consider dealing with lifestyle triggers like stress to prevent anything adversely affecting these levels. 

Remember that chronic stress results in increased hormones that cause your body to release sugar in the bloodstream. Repeated sugar spikes can produce insulin resistance. Eventually, persistently high levels of insulin secretion could decrease your pancreas' ability to produce it and decrease sensitivity which could increase your chances of diabetic glucose levels. So, stress management is critical in preventing prediabetes and improving blood glucose levels.

You know what you should do to manage stress. But what shouldn't you do? We've already explained how some coping mechanisms may make you feel like you're dealing with the stress but are not really effective. Here's a quick reminder of things that can do more harm than good.

Steer clear of these coping mechanisms: 

  • Relying too heavily on prescription medication can have other side effects. 
  • Distracting yourself too much with endless hours of television can dull the brain
  • Withdrawing from social life if you have social anxiety can feel like the proper response, but social isolation can cause health issues, especially later in life.
  • Overeating or undereating can lead to unhealthy weight fluctuations.
  • Turning to vices like alcohol and smoking can feel stress-relieving but only increase your risk of other ailments. 
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