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If I have diabetes, how can stress affect my blood sugar?

Many sources of stress are long-term threats. For example, it can take many months to recover from surgery. Stress hormones that are designed to deal with short-term danger stay turned on for a long time. As a result, long-term stress can cause long-term high blood glucose levels.

Many long-term sources of stress are mental. Your mind sometimes reacts to a harmless event as if it were a real threat. Like physical stress, mental stress can be short term: from taking a test to getting stuck in a traffic jam. It can also be long term: from working for a demanding boss to taking care of an aging parent. With mental stress, the body pumps out hormones to no avail. Neither fighting nor fleeing is any help when the "enemy" is your own mind.

In people with diabetes, stress can alter blood glucose levels in two ways:

  • People under stress may not take good care of themselves. They may drink more alcohol or exercise less. They may forget, or not have time, to check their glucose levels or plan good meals.
  • Stress hormones may also alter blood glucose levels directly.

Scientists have studied the effects of stress on glucose levels in animals and people. Diabetic mice under physical or mental stress have elevated glucose levels. The effects in people with type 1 diabetes are more mixed. While most people's glucose levels go up with mental stress, others' glucose levels can go down. In people with type 2 diabetes, mental stress often raises blood glucose levels. Physical stress, such as illness or injury, causes higher blood glucose levels in people with either type of diabetes.

It's easy to see how mental stress affects your glucose control. Before checking your glucose levels, write down a number rating your mental stress level on a scale of 1 to 10. Then write down your glucose level next to it. After a week or two, look for a pattern. Drawing a graph may help you see trends better. Do high stress levels often occur with high glucose levels, and low stress levels with low glucose levels? If so, stress may affect your glucose control.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.