Effects of Stress on Diabetes

This is a subject that I have a particular fascination with, having spoken about it on radio as well as writing about it for business magazines and newspapers. It is particularly relevant in todays economic climate, where alot of us have financial worries, business concerns and job prospects that are just not there. For those of us who are working, we are working twice as hard, expected to do the work of two people. This can put our bodies under incredible strain and stress.

The flipside of this for me, as a diabetes nurse running my own parctice, was in the ‘Celtic Tiger’ era in Ireland, I saw people being diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, younger and younger, in their twenties and thirties. They drove to the practice in their high powered cars, wearing fancy suits, overweight from their sedentry lifestyles, eating on the go and bursting from stress from their jobs. Now I see the same age group coming to my practice, unemployed, depressed, comfort eating and sitting around at home bored and stressed from being unable to get work.

I want to be very clear, stress does not directly cause diabetes, but its impact on diabetes must be taken just as seriously as diet and exercise. Peoples habits, beliefs and behaviours all have a direct impact on how they cope with stress and for any individual with diabetes, as well as their health care professionals, must look at these in conjunction with other lifestyle issues. When people are stressed they tend to over eat, not eat regularly or enough, smoke, turn to alcohol or even get depressed. There is no point revolutionising your diet and activity levels if you are stressed out of your eyeballs, and the pressure of changing habits of a lifetime as well as having diabetes is driving you around the twist. This will have a direct impact on your blood sugar readings. despite leading a very healthy lifestyle.

The Science Bit

The Effects of Stress on Diabetes

So how does stress affect diabetes and blood sugar levels?

Stress occurs when something in particular causes your body to behave as if it were under attack. Stress can be from a physical source, for example illness. Or it can be from a mental source, such as problems in your marriage, job, health, or finances.When stress occurs, the body prepares to take action, making the body speed up and get tense. This is called the fight-or-flight response, which many people may have heard of. In the fight-or-flight response, levels of many hormones rise rapidly. This in turn causes the body to release a lot of stored energy — glucose and fat — available to cells. The job of these cells are to help the body escape from danger.

Not all stress is bad, in fact some stress is good, it makes you more alert at work, or pushes you to do better.

In people who have diabetes, the fight-or-flight response does not work well. Insulin is not always able to let the extra energy into the cells, so glucose piles up in the blood stream.

Stress can also cause other health concerns outside of your diabetes, as your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises, muscles get tense, breathing gets shallow. Sustaining these symptoms over a period of time can lead to increase risk of a cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke and/or gastrointestinal problems such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome(IBS) and stomach ulcers.

So having the flu, a cold or infection can cause blood sugar levels to rise as the body is under stress trying to cope with illness. They rise after surgery, as the body copes with trying to repair itself. Students facing exams will see blood sugar levels rise as well as someone worried about their finances.

Some people when they are newly diagnosed with diabetes, report their diagnosis comes after some hugely stressful event in their lives, such as a bereavement. Care givers who have diabetes report huge fluctuations in their blood sugars with the stress of caring for someone at home, without little or no support.

Sometimes there is very little we can do to eliminate the cause of our stress. But often people having an awareness of the fact that they are stressed, creates an understanding as to why their blood sugar control is not as good as they would like. Many people may not be aware that they are sufferng some stress, so it is always helpful to listen to others, especially your loved ones, as they may see your stress more than you do.

Simple steps to help reduce your stress levels are as folllows:

  • Find the cause of your stress: When you are stressed it seems like everything is causing the stress, when in fact it is one particular issue that is the problem
  • List the parts of your stress you have control over & accept what you cannot change; what we all have control over is how we view stress
  • Talk to someone: the old saying ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ does hold some home truths. It can also help you see your stress in a different way. If you feel the problem is too much for you to handle, talk to your doctor or diabetes nurse.
  • Exercise: Increasing your physical activity levels is probably the best stress buster that there is, and you are burning off sugar as well!!
  • Deep Breathing Exercises: This approach is very useful as they can be done anywhere and are available to you at any given time. Examples of deep breathing techniques for stress can be found on http://www.stress-management-for-peak-performance.com/breathing-techniques.html
  • Meditation: Practicing meditation on a regular basis, has been proven to reduce blood pressure and the effects of living with a chronic condition. For anyone who would like to explore meditation in more detail,  in one of west corks most spectacular settings should go to http://www.dzogchenbeara.org/index.php?pid=70
  • Start a new hobby: Have you always wanted to learn to play the guitar or speak a foreign language? Doing something just for you, can help you to refocus your goals and priorities in life which can subsequently reduce the effects of stress on your body and diabetes
  • Goal Setting: When we are stressed on a daily basis, it can be very hard to see the wood for the trees so to speak. Planning, preparing , prioritsing and delegating can help reduce the impact of stress in our lives and also creates space to help us to deal with the stress.

At Diabetes Insight we can help you to look at your health behaviours, habits & beliefs to assess are these having a direct impact on your stress levels, also on your diabetes and ways to combat stress in your life. We provide you with the practical tools and support for long term management of your diabetes on a day to day level.

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