Can stress affect my blood sugar levels?

Blood sugar levels can be affected by stress because it can increase cortisol, which will also raise blood sugar.

William Lee Dubois

It was easier back in the days when we were cave-people. Imagine that you are walking along, gathering nuts and berries when all of the sudden a saber tooth tiger jumps out of the bushes.

What would you do? Right. Scream and run.

And that's what the little organs on top of your kidneys are for. They let you run faster (hopefully) than the hungry cat. They are called your adrenal glands and they pump a hormone called adrenaline into your blood giving you a momentary boost in energy, speed, and strength. It’s your body’s turbocharger for getting out of danger.

So stress, in this case fear, causes this boost of sugar-like hormone. Back in cave-people days when something caused a blast of adrenaline, you most likely used it up right away, so it did no harm to your body.

Now, the problem these days, is that we have no saber tooth cats to stress us out, arguably a mixed blessing. But today’s stressors are not things you can run away from. Dropped cell phone calls. Traffic jams. A letter from the I.R.S. Any of these things, and a great many more, will cause stress, and that will lead to an adrenaline release, which will raise your blood sugar so that you can run away. Except you can’t run away from these things, so often your blood sugar will stay high for long periods of time.

If you are really stressed out, your sugar may be elevated all of the time. So what can you do about it? Well, if moving to Aruba and living on the beach forever is not an option, any of the following may be: exercise is often a great stress reliever, and helps work off the adrenaline to boot. If you work in a stressful environment, give yourself some sort of personal ritual at the end of the day to leave the stress at the office. Depending on your diabetes medication, an increase may off-set the elevations in sugar caused by stress. You can discuss that with your doctor.

But, and this is important, stress affects more than just your blood sugar. It can raise your blood pressure. It can affect your muscles and bones. It can affect your friendships and loved ones. So high blood sugar is just one of the negative impacts of stress. Stress, like any other illness, needs to be treated before it makes you sick.

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), high levels of stress can have negative effects on your blood sugar levels. That’s why it’s important to practice good relaxation techniques to lower your risk for type 2 diabetes. The ADA recommends the following:

  • Breathing exercises. Sit or lie down and uncross your legs and arms. Take in a deep breath. Then push out as much air as you can and relax your muscles. Do these exercises for a minimum of five minutes at least once a day.
  • Replace negative thoughts with positive ones. If a negative thought is going through your mind, replace it with something that makes you happy or peaceful. You may also visualize a favorite nature scene to lessen anxiety and promote more serenity.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider.

Stacy Wiegman, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

There are several ways that stress may affect your blood sugar levels. Stress induces the well-known fight-or-flight response, in which your body increases its levels of certain stress hormones. These, in turn, cause a rise in the amount of sugar in your blood, where it's available to be used by your cells as fuel. If your body doesn't have enough insulin or can't use the insulin it has in order to get that blood sugar into your cells, your blood sugar levels remain high. Stress may also indirectly increase your blood sugar levels by causing you to abandon your good habits. When stressed, you may not eat well or exercise regularly, or you may drink more alcohol. These habits can cause your blood sugar levels to rise. In addition, you may not take time to check your blood glucose levels as often when you are stressed, so you may not be aware of the effects that the stress is having on your blood sugar levels. If you feel that stress is affecting your diabetes, talk to your doctor.

In diabetics blood glucose levels can be affected by many factors including diet, exercise, stress, and illness. In non-diabetic people, stress can cause a release of hormones that temporarily increases blood sugar in order for the body to adequately react to the stressor. People with diabetes can't always handle this response, so sugars can remain more elevated than they would otherwise.

Stress can produce hormones that can shoot your blood glucose levels up and out of your desired range. Stress can also be a hidden contributor to unexpected swings in blood glucose levels. The effect of an angry driver who cuts you off on the interstate can’t be as easily measured as grams of carbohydrate, units of insulin, or calories burned during exercise. When you can’t figure out why your blood glucose level is so high despite “doing everything right,” think about the stresses in your life. Also, think about how you respond to stress. Do you eat when you are under stress? This can bring up blood glucose levels. Do stressful situations make you more active than usual? This response can decrease blood glucose levels.

Dr. Reza Yavari, MD

Stress can raise blood sugar levels by releasing stress hormones in the body. In this video, endocrinologist Reza Yavari, MD, explains how both internal and external stressors can impact blood sugar levels, and why it's important to manage stress.

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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.