One of the great fears when you have diabetes is that you’ll develop potentially fatal hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar. It’s not just insulin and glucagon problems that interfere with your glucose, though. The hormones released by stress, like cortisol and adrenaline, can also contribute to a dangerous increase, which means they also need to be controlled.
When you’re stressed, your body sometimes enters its so-called “fight or flight response”. Basically, it’s ready for rapid and intense movement. This means changes to your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure, among other things. The way your body knows to make these changes is because of your hormones, with your adrenal glands releasing adrenaline and epinephrine.
What does this have to do with your blood sugar? Well, if you’re going to do all this movement, you’re going to need energy. That means you need to release all the various stores of glucose you have stashed all around your body. Epinephrine is responsible for making sure this happens. Once glucose is released, your widened blood vessels and increased blood pressure ensure it can be rapidly transported around the body.
Cortisol is another hormone released as part of your body’s response to stress. Most of the sugar in our body comes from consuming carbohydrates, but cortisol drives a process called gluconeogenesis, allowing us to also pull energy from proteins and fats. More cortisol means more glucose in the blood. When we’re stressed, cortisol and epinephrine between them ensure we have less insulin and more glucagon driving blood sugar up.
Most stress is a temporary thing, but this doesn’t stop it from potentially causing major damage. There’s research to suggest that hyperglycemia is a particular risk after major stressful events, like a heart attack or stroke, even in people without diabetes. Then there’s chronic stress, which can lead to ongoing problems regulating your cortisol and epinephrine, which means your blood sugar is harder to control. That’s a particular worry for anyone with diabetes who is already having blood sugar problems.
Anyone can experience hyperglycemia given the wrong circumstances, and that includes if they encounter a major stressful situation or deal with ongoing low level stress that becomes chronic. For diabetics, the usual side effects of stress may be magnified by their existing hormone and blood sugar issues. This means managing stress is an essential part of controlling your blood sugar successfully.