Why stress makes your BGLs rise

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Stress and BGLs: are they related?

The stress response is our body’s way of keeping us safe. A thousand years or so ago, that made perfect sense. Our biggest stress then would be to be the hunted, rather than the hunter.  When a tiger (or a mammoth) is chasing you as their preferred lunch option you want to make sure that you can outrun them, or that you can knock them out and have them for lunch instead.  This is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight response”.

To be able to run faster or fight harder you need energy. So when you are stressed your body automatically release stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, which should increase your chances of survival.

These stress hormones help focus on the task ahead: the fight or flight. By increasing blood pressure, pulse rate and breathing rate your body is better able to pump blood around the body faster and provide your muscles with more oxygen. Other bodily functions that are not essential, such as growth and digestion, are slowed down to preserve energy.

The stress hormones also stimulate the pancreas to release glucagon into the bloodstream. Glucagon could be considered the antidote to insulin as it releases stored glucose into the bloodstream, which provides your body with the necessary energy to fight or flight.

A problem that many of us have today is that this flight/fight response still happens but our stressors are very different. Much of the stress we experience these days is perceived, which means it is only present in our heads. For example, the fear of losing a loved one, the fear of getting a hypo in the middle of the night, the fear of getting infected with the coronavirus… In most cases the event has not actually happened yet, but we are worried or stressed about it. We also stress over things in our past; although the event may have been real, it is not actually happening right now, but feels as if it is… Think of things like flash backs, nightmares, and memories in general.

If we are constantly in a stressed state, it can eventually affect our health. Chronically elevated blood pressure and an increased heart rate can lead us to develop heart disease. Similarly chronically elevated levels of glucagon increases blood glucose levels and can lead to the development of diabetes (if you are prone to it). You can now see how stress can cause your blood glucose levels to rise when you have diabetes.

Reducing stress is therefore a good option in helping to reduce hyperglycaemia (high blood glucose levels).

And the really good news? You have a choice!

How can you reduce stress?

By slowing down your mind, and by being in the present moment, you can clearer see fact from fiction. This can help you to choose how to respond to a particular situation. For example, if you fear having a hypo in the middle of the night, ask yourself “am I having a hypo right now?” If you are having a hypo then you can do something about this – treat it and your problem will go away. If you are not having a hypo right then, the problem is not really there, is it?  It is just a thought that you could have a hypo overnight. Just like clouds in the sky float past us, this thought will also pass, particularly if you put measures in place to reduce your risk of overnight hypos. Prepare yourself, but focus on what you can control.

Research has shown that just 15 minutes of meditation per day can make positive changes to the brain and other parts of the body. But, just like exercise, you have to work towards this – so start with a shorter amount of time and work your way up.

Focussing on your breath is one of the most common forms of meditation. There are a number of apps that can help you with this. Anytime you fully focus your attention on something is a form of meditation. So next time you do a crossword, a puzzle, or go for a walk, really focus on the activity and try and let any unrelated thoughts pass you by, just like those clouds. If you feel worried, focus your attention on what you can see, hear and feel. Think of three things in each category, it will help you come back to the present moment.

If you feel that stress is getting the better of you and you are unable to slow down your thoughts enough to see fact from fiction, ask for help.

Where to seek support?

Family and friends can often help, but if you feel you need more professional help your GP is a great point of call (even in the middle of a pandemic).

Diabetes NSW & ACT has a team of health professionals that can support you. Call our Helpline on 1300 342 238 and ask to speak to a Diabetes Educator, Dietitian, Exercise Physiologist or our Psychologist on Call.


Carolien Koreneff, CDE-RN, FADEA

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