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Stress and Prediabetes: What You Need to Know

Christie Borders, MS, CNS

Published in Stress

9 min read

February 3, 2022
May 22, 2023
a person covering their head with their hands, looking stressed out
a person covering their head with their hands, looking stressed out

Did you know that more than one in three adults in America have prediabetes? According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it affects 96 million American adults, and as many as 80 percent of them are unaware that they have the condition.

Prediabetes is a health condition defined by blood sugar levels higher than the normal range but not high enough for a diabetes diagnosis. There are also ways you can reverse prediabetes before it leads to diabetes. 

While not every instance of prediabetes is due to your lifestyle, several lifestyle factors can influence the condition. One of these is stress—something we've all experienced at some point or another.

Read on to find out more about the connection between stress and prediabetes.

Stress and Your Body

a person looking stressed out

An increased heart rate, excessive perspiration, fatigue, tummy aches—stress can affect your body in surprising ways. When stress levels rise higher over time, it increases the secretion of certain hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol and may increase your risk for health issues like prediabetes.

When you experience stress, your brain reacts by sending hormone signals to your adrenal glands, which release an abundance of hormones. These hormones prepare your body for danger, but if there are constantly high levels of them in your bloodstream, they may lead to insulin resistance.

To avoid this, it's a good idea to learn how to address and manage stress. Here's what can happen in stressful situations:

  • A biological response is triggered that stimulates the release of stress hormones
  • These chemicals prepare the body for a fight or flight response.
  • This prepares the body to react quickly to danger

While your stress response can be a good thing in certain acute situations, chronic longer-term activation can do damage.

symptoms of stress list

What is the Relationship Between Stress and Prediabetes?

As we mentioned, stress is not always a bad thing. Without stress, we wouldn't respond to danger or life’s challenges. So, the right amount of stress can improve performance and help you with daily life in some situations.

However, stress should be temporary, and it shouldn't make you feel ill. After adrenaline and cortisol spike in the vicinity of acute stress, your heart and breathing rates should decrease, and glucose levels should return to normal levels. But what if that doesn’t happen?

a person looking down and holding their head with hands


Insulin Resistance

If your cortisol and adrenaline levels are high for a long time, this can increase the risk of insulin resistance. Insulin helps glucose exit your bloodstream and enter your cells to provide your body with energy.

If your cells don’t respond properly to insulin, higher amounts of glucose remain in your bloodstream, causing high blood sugar. This may increase risk for prediabetes, diabetes, and other health conditions.

Weakened Immune System Responses

a person sitting on the floor and sneezing

During a stress episode, the concentration of pro-inflammatory cytokines and glucocorticoids in your body rises. Cytokines help coordinate immune response in the body. 

However, long-term stress may lead to high levels of various glucocorticoids (like cortisol), which may negatively impact the immune system in a variety of ways.

Higher Cortisol Levels = Higher Blood Sugar

Stressful situations trigger the release of cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone that stimulates the breakdown of glycogen and release of glucose into the blood. The sugar spike from your blood gives you the energy boost you need to react quickly to stressful situations.

However, constant stress may negatively impact glucose balance. High sugar levels in the bloodstream can cause prediabetes. And, if high chronic stress levels are a continuous part of life, prediabetes can turn into diabetes.

Increased Cravings for Carbohydrates

a person eating waffles with strawberries

High cortisol levels can trick the brain into thinking that the body doesn't have enough energy to fight the danger, making you crave simple sugar. Sugary foods supply fuel quickly.

Emotional eating is also a common symptom of and coping response to stress. After the ingestion of carbs, your brain stimulates the secretion of serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate a number of functions such as sleep, mood, and digestion. 

Nutrisense dietitian Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD explains:

“I call this riding the blood sugar rollercoaster. This involves consuming lots of refined/high sugar carbs, which typically leads to a large blood sugar spike, followed by a dramatic dip. A lot of the time, big energy swings can be felt with these types of fluctuations in glucose values. It can be a vicious cycle of a bunch of ups and downs because when we feel that low, our first instinct is to grab more quick carbs to give ourselves that energy boost, restarting the cycle!”

Tips for Managing Stress

a person meditating

Now that you know more about stress and its relationship with prediabetes, it's vital to learn how to manage it. Here are a few tips to help you manage stress and, in turn, manage your glucose levels

1) Track Your Stress

Symptoms such as mood choices, sleep disruptions, digestive upset, hormonal imbalances, and even changes in skin can ‍all signal rising stress levels. Try using a journal to keep track of your symptom patterns. Also, consider using a tool like a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to track how your glucose might be shifting in response to different stress factors.

2) Find a Stress-Relieving Activity

Stress-relieving activities can come in many shapes and sizes. Mindfulness meditation, exercise, getting creative with a project or hobby, or being outside in nature can be great options. 

3) Break Away From Routine

Consider taking a break from your daily routine. Travel somewhere new to get out of your comfort zone or take a breather from the stress of everyday life. This can be all about carving out deliberate time to focus on self-care as well. 

4) Take A Breather

Learn how to manage stress wherever you are with breathing and meditation techniques. Research shows that short rounds of diaphragmatic breathing through the day can reduce cortisol levels in some people. 

5) Engage With Others

Meet with family or friends, and spend time around people who make you feel relaxed. Play board games, watch a movie or have a family meal together.

6) Re-Evaluate Your Career

If work is a stress factor, you might consider talking with your supervisor to find ways to manage or reduce your workload. If these changes don't improve your wellbeing or if the career you're in is too stressful for you, it might even be time to consider switching jobs.

7) Put Yourself First

Focusing on self-care can go a long way in helping you manage stress levels. This can take the form of prioritizing healthy food choices, behaviors and activities that help you relieve stress, and adequate rest to restore your mind and body.

This isn’t always as easy as it sounds and if you feel you’re struggling with this one, consider reaching out to a qualified professional such as a behavioral therapist for support and accountability. 

8) Cut Out Bad Habits

Reduce your alcohol intake and try to cut out cigarettes if you're a smoker. While all these habits may bring temporary relief, they may do more harm to your health by adding more stress to your body in the long run.

Last but not least, remember to ask for help whenever you need it. If overwhelming stress is starting to affect your mental health, it's always best to have someone to talk to rather than try and deal with things on your own.

How Not To Deal with Stress with Prediabetes

a person laying on the floor, looking stressed out

Prediabetes is a health condition that can lead to diabetes, so it's essential to recognize and address it before it does. Paying attention to lifestyle factors that influence your risk is important. Remember that chronic stress may increase your risk for insulin resistance. Stress management is critical in preventing prediabetes and diabetes.

You now know more about what you should do to manage stress. But what shouldn't you do? We've already explained how some coping mechanisms may make you feel like you're dealing with the stress but may be adding more stress over time. Here's a quick reminder of things that can do more harm than good.

If You're Stressed, Steer Clear of These Coping Mechanisms

  • Distracting yourself too much with endless hours of television can dull the brain
  • Withdrawing from social life if you have social anxiety can feel like the proper response, but social isolation can increase risk for health issues, especially later in life.
  • Overeating or undereating can lead to unhealthy weight fluctuations.
  • Turning to vices like alcohol and smoking can feel stress-relieving but only increase your risk of other ailments.
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Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Reviewed by: Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.

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