You've probably heard people say that stress can make you sick. But does all stress make us sick? And what is really meant by the word "stress,” anyway?
Stress impacts everybody in different ways, and surprisingly, your glucose levels can be impacted during times of high stress. So what happens to our glucose response when we experience stress, and how do our glucose levels in turn impact our body's ability to process and manage stress?
Stress and glucose have an intimate two-way relationship, and it's important to understand this relationship so we can hack it at the deepest level. To kick us off, let's take a closer look at what stress really is and how it works in our bodies.
First, we must admit: not all stress is bad! Some of it is actually good.
Stress is simply a type of pressure applied to a system. Whether something is a “good” or “bad” pressure or stressor depends on the dose and the timing.
When we are building and maintaining our bone density, load-bearing exercise or resistance training is a stress applied to our bones and connective tissue. In most people, this pressure will stimulate bone growth - a good thing.
Similarly, when we are young and our immune system is developing, we are exposed to all kinds of stress in the form of pathogens from the outside world. These pathogen stressors train our immune system to recognize and protect against future invaders - also a good thing.
However, we can break a bone with too much load-bearing, and we can die from an infectious illness we didn’t have the ability to fight off. You can see that the difference between a stressor that helps or hurts is how and when we apply it and whether or not we have the internal ability to adapt to it.
All stressors, whether or not they come from “external” sources such as a fight with a loved one or “internal” ones such as a food intolerance, will be interpreted by the exact same biochemistry of the stress-response system in the body.
This is why we can say: all stress, regardless of its origin, is ultimately metabolic stress.
Sources of Stress
Stress placed on the body can occur along a continuum and is most commonly found in the form of:
- Emotional drama or trauma
- Physical activity/exercise
- Nutrient imbalances (both deficiency and excess may be detrimental), including glucose
- Intolerances to foods, medications, or supplements
- Injuries or infectious illnesses
- Environmental toxins/xenobiotic exposure
- Exposure to allergens
- Sleep deprivation
You may have noticed that glucose was on that list. How can glucose itself be a stressor? We'll talk about that in a minute! But first, let's look at some other things on this list.
When most of us talk about stress, we are often referring to that first bullet point: emotional drama/trauma. Maybe you got into a fight with your best friend or find yourself worrying a lot about a situation at work.
Your brain and body don't really know the difference between these things, and the primitive memory of being chased by a bear. It's all a response wired into the same system: the stress-response system, or neuroendocrine system. The neuroendocrine system is all about helping you adapt to a changing world and the changing pressures within it.
Part of how we evolved to adapt to stress involves increasing our stress hormone, cortisol, which in turn, tends to increase glucose levels. This makes sense! The body needs more quick fuel to launch a sprint to safety or defense.
But these emotional stressors aren't the only stressors we have going on. Everything else on this list exerts equally important pressure on our metabolic framework - speeding up some chemical reactions, slowing others down - and perhaps overloading others into a biochemical traffic jam!
Glucose and Stress
Glucose can itself be a stressor as well. Here's how we can create more overall metabolic stress when our glucose is out of whack:
When glucose rises very high into the "danger zone" after, let's say, we've eaten a giant piece of birthday cake at 8 pm, this is registered as a significant metabolic stress on the body. To respond, the body will initiate a cascade of hormonal and molecular changes that works to bring the body back to homeostasis and "normal" glucose levels.
Over time, and over repeated exposures to the higher stress of these more extreme glucose spikes, the body may fundamentally change how it responds to the incoming flood of glucose. And eventually, we may arrive at a state of insulin resistance.
This process of acquiring a maladaptive response (insulin resistance) is a bit more complex than we'll dissect here. But, you can see how we have used the metabolic pressure or stressor of too much glucose to trigger damage in the body that now alters an important aspect of our baseline metabolic health and function.
Impaired glucose regulation can impact many other areas of metabolic function. With insulin resistance itself, we see impaired stress regulation of other areas of the metabolic planet as well. Insulin resistance increases our risk for many diseases - all affecting metabolic health as a whole.
It's also possible to have a stress-response reaction triggered when glucose falls too low (hypoglycemia). Hypoglycemia can be a metabolic stressor that leads to symptoms such as worsened fatigue, anxiety, brain fog, headaches, and more.
How Do You Know if Stress is Impacting Your Glucose Levels?
As you can see on our two-way street, stressors coming in from non-glucose origins can impact glucose and changes in glucose itself can impact the function of our stress-response system on a larger level. Changes in glucose can happen as a result of any change in our metabolic stress load from any one of these origins.
Though it might initially feel overwhelming to consider all of these different sources of stress and wonder how we are supposed to turn this into simple, practical, daily action, it's easier than you might imagine!
Symptoms of Stress
Your body's response to different stressors likely won't be the exact same as someone else's response. With stress and glucose, one person's medicine is another's poison. For one person, we may see a longer fasting window improve glucose regulation and stress-management while for someone else, they may need a much shorter window to achieve optimal glucose response.
We can often use key symptoms like the following to interpret and gauge stress levels in our body:
- Low energy levels
- Poor mood or mood swings
- Poor sleep quality
- Impaired cognitive function
- Impaired digestive function
These symptoms also can help us to determine where our individual tolerance is at for different stressors. Having a way to see our daily patterns in glucose response is a powerful tool in this process.
How to Manage & Reduce Stress
There are lots of ways to try to reduce your stress levels, and finding your personal optimal “sweet spot” regarding stress takes some time and experimentation. However, here are some tips:
Track your Symptoms
Do you struggle with any symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety/depression, poor sleep, difficulty concentrating, poor digestion, body pain, or difficulty managing weight? If so, consider tracking how these symptoms may change from day to day as you experiment with some of the following
Choose a Nutrient-Dense Whole Foods-Based Diet
Nutrients such as amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals are all required by the metabolic “superhighways” in appropriate amounts and ratios in order to perform all of the functions of metabolism. This includes stress regulation!
Regardless of what dietary approach you follow, research shows that laying a strong foundation of nutrient density through whole foods first is best. You might consider working with a registered dietitian to help you discover what dietary approach meets your unique nutritional needs, including how to assess your tolerance or sensitivities to different foods and supplements.
Get Appropriate Exercise
Some people may need more or less physical activity than others. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different kinds of movement (including some solid rest days) and different types, intensities, and durations of exercise throughout the week to see what helps you feel your best.
This is simple, but incredibly important. Make sure you're drinking plenty of water throughout the day. If you're not sure how much water you should be drinking, check out our article on dietitian-recommended hydration strategies.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Getting plenty of rest is important for everything from cognitive function to weight regulation. Here's what you need to know about sleep, stress, and your blood sugar.
Don’t Forget to Breathe
Practicing yoga and meditation are two great ways to slow your mind and body down to reduce stress. Here’s some more info on how to hack your cortisol with diaphragmatic breathing.
Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense
Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.
With Nutrisense, you’ll be able to track your blood glucose levels over time using a CGM, so you can make lifestyle choices that support healthy living.
When you join the Nutrisense CGM program, our team of credentialed dietitians and nutritionists are available for additional support and guidance to help you reach your goals.
Ready to take the first step? Start with our quiz to see how Nutrisense can support your health.
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Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.