Every year 53,000 people in North Carolina are diagnosed with diabetes. This number is likely to rise in the coming years if we do not take charge of our stress. New research shows the stress hormone, cortisol, is more likely to remain high in type 2 diabetes. This shows just how stress can wreak havoc on our health.
We are already months into a reality overturned by COVID-19. A reality wrought with fear and grief, as we experience loss of loved ones, jobs, social interaction, and normalcy. The resulting turmoil is not only causing a spike in mental health disorders, it is also hampering physical health. This news was recently highlighted in a study published online in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. It affirmed a direct link between stress and blood sugar in type 2 diabetes.
How does stress impact blood sugar?
You may be familiar with the physical symptoms of stress (such as tightness in the chest, rapid heart rate, etc.). But did you also know that additional reactions are taking place silently within?
When we experience change that is out of our control (hello, pandemic life!), feelings of fear and uncertainty flood our thoughts. This leads many to a state of heightened stress, heightened cortisol and heightened blood sugar.
In a healthy state, the stress hormone, cortisol, naturally ebbs and flows. It rises in the morning upon waking and falls by the evening. This rise gives us a spike of energy to tackle the day before us, by releasing sugar as energy into our bloodstream for fuel.
In a state of chronic stress, however, cortisol may remain high morning, noon and night. As a result, we’re kept in a neverending state of ‘fight or flight’ with blood sugar pulsing through at the ready.
The study found the flat surge of cortisol to be more consistent among those with type 2 diabetes. This indicates an even greater need for stress management in diabetics.
Is there a link between stress and diabetes risk?
The idea of high blood sugar sounds helpful in theory. Especially when your body is preparing to actually jump into a fight or to run for your life. However, when we live in a constant state of stress, the long-term effects are not so helpful. Chronic high blood sugar may damage nerves, blood vessels and your heart; leading to a loss of vision and rendering insulin ineffective.
As a result, insulin is unable to do its job, blood sugar continues to rise, and type 2 diabetes ensues.
Does high blood sugar lower immunity?
Let’s go back to cortisol. This hormone is released in a state of stress, helping to lower inflammation in the short-term. Yet when we are living in stress, the flames of inflammation are fanned by the out-of-our-control changes taking place, further fueling the fire. If inflammation remains high, as a result of stress and poor lifestyle habits, cortisol will continue to be released to fight the inflammation. This action, over time, will eventually devastate the immune system.
Oh, the irony. The stress of trying to stay safe from COVID-19 may actually be making us more susceptible to the virus itself.
Ultimately, this long-term and inflated stress response may result in cortisol dysfunction. If cortisol is not able to do its job, widespread inflammation will ensue. This state is known to increase disease risk and weaken the immune system. Potentially increasing the risk for the common cold, flu or even, COVID-19.
What can you do to lower stress?
If stress spurs the cascade of cortisol, blood sugar and disrupted immunity, what can we do to manage this waterfall?
The good news is we can do something. There is plenty of evidence supporting the idea that we can manage our stress. Take a deep breath, go for a walk, or even take a moment to journal your feelings. Surprisingly, the simple act of noticing the feelings that arise with stress, and viewing them as messengers on a mission, will help.
This idea of being mindfully aware of the stress response in our body is something worth noting. The team of researchers conducting this study is now looking into the link between stress management and diabetes prevention. Soon, they will initiate a second study on the link between cortisol and disease risk.
Curious to learn more? Start by dabbling in your own mindfulness practice. Explore mindfulness in a zoom workshop with local expert, Jen Johnson. Squeeze in continuing education by taking mindfulness courses at UNC. In similar fashion, you can go a step further by partaking in the research itself. If you are feeling symptoms of depression and have type 2 diabetes, consider joining Part Two of this study. Researchers will be examining whether or not a mindfulness practice may help lower blood sugar.