How Depression and Anxiety Relate To Your Blood Sugar

Learn how depression and anxiety can affect glucose levels and discover strategies for managing both for better overall health.

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by
Kelsey Kunik, RDN
— Signos
RDN
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
February 29, 2024
January 29, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Does depression and anxiety increase your risk of diabetes, or does living with diabetes put your mental health on the line? Research shows that it might be a little bit of both. There’s a strong link between diabetes and mood disorders like depression and anxiety, as people who have diabetes are two to three times more likely to also have depression.1

In this article, we’re uncovering the connection between blood sugar and mood disorders – how your depression and anxiety affect your blood sugar and how elevated blood sugar can have negative effects on your mood.

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Blood Sugar Basics

When you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar levels rise, triggering the release of insulin, which helps glucose from your blood enter your cells to give you energy. This chain of events helps prevent your blood sugar from getting too high and keeps your body fueled. 

For an estimated 40% of adults, normal amounts of insulin can’t effectively let glucose into the cells, leading to insulin resistance, a predecessor of type two diabetes.2 Eventually, your body is unable to pump out enough insulin to lower your blood sugar, which leads to hyperglycemia and, eventually, type two diabetes.

Elevated blood sugars can also be caused by diets that are high in sugar, a sedentary lifestyle, and chronic stress, including depression and anxiety, as we’ll see in the following sections. For a more detailed understanding of how your diet, activity, lifestyle, and mood impact your blood sugar, using a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) can be a great tool. Signos helps you track and analyze your blood sugar levels in real time, helping you make informed decisions about your diet and lifestyle and employ stress management tools as needed. 

The Relationship Between Depression and Blood Sugar

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Almost 20% of adults in the United States have been diagnosed with depression at one point in their life, making this mental health condition incredibly common.3 Depression is characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, loss of interest, and various physical symptoms and can disrupt many aspects of life, including how your body manages blood sugar. At the same time, high blood sugar has been found to impact mood and potentially create changes in the body that could lead to depression. 

Diets High in Sugar Increase the Risk of Depression

A large prospective cohort study of almost 70,000 women found that as diets trended higher in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and an overall higher glycemic load, so did the incidence of depression.4 Alternatively, diets higher in lactose, fiber, fruits, and vegetables were associated with a lower risk of depression. 

There are several potential reasons why this connection may exist. Eating too many refined carbohydrates and sugars leads to inflammation in the body, which is directly linked to the development of depression. 

Eating excessive amounts of sugar over long periods can also lead to insulin resistance of brain cells, which researchers have found, via animal studies, to induce symptoms of depression and anxiety. High blood sugar can also impair the formation of new neurons in the brain involved in stress adaptation and mood, potentially leading to depression.5

The Effects of Depression Can Increase Blood Sugar

Depression affects appetite, energy levels, motivation, and food choices and increases the risk of participating in unhealthy lifestyle choices like binge drinking, drugs, and smoking. All of these side effects of depression have the potential to increase your blood sugar. 

Low energy, a side effect of depression, can make it hard to cook healthy meals, increasing the intake of fast-food, high-sugar, and high-fat choices, all while making it difficult to exercise and stay active. It’s not surprising that adults with depression have a 37% higher chance of developing diabetes than people without depression.6

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="what-affects-blood-sugar">What Affects Blood Sugar: Factors Of Blood Sugar Swings</a>.</p>

The Relationship Between Anxiety and Blood Sugar 

Anxiety, a state of heightened worry and fear, can manifest through symptoms like restlessness, increased heart rate, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disturbances. Some people may experience occasional anxiety, or it could be a chronic struggle. But it doesn’t just impact your emotional state. Anxiety can quickly wreak havoc on your blood sugar. 

When you're anxious, your body goes into a 'fight or flight' mode, which triggers the release of stress hormones, including cortisol. Cortisol's job is to get your body ready to spring into action, so it increases your blood sugar levels for the quick energy boost it thinks you need. While this response is helpful in short bursts when there’s a real threat around, it can be problematic if it's constantly activated by chronic anxiety. Elevated cortisol over time can lead to consistently high blood sugar levels, increasing the risk of various medical conditions like heart disease, stroke, and more.7

Anxiety can also influence lifestyle choices that indirectly impact your blood sugar. You may overeat or undereat, have reduced motivation to exercise, or reach for a cigarette, all of which can affect your blood sugar. 

Managing Blood Sugar And Your Mental Health

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Managing normal blood sugar levels while experiencing depression or anxiety is easier said than done, but with the right strategy and support, you can be successful. If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety symptoms, the first step is to work with your medical provider or therapist, as addressing your mental health should be a top priority. 

Here are a few ways you can support your mental health and blood sugar through diet and lifestyle choices: 

  • Eat a Balanced Diet: Foods that are high in fiber, lean protein, and healthy fats can help stabilize blood sugar and support your mental health. It's also important to be mindful of meal timings and portion sizes, as irregular eating habits often associated with mood fluctuations can lead to blood sugar spikes or drops.
  • Start a Regular Exercise Routine: Physical activity not only helps in regulating blood sugar levels but also boosts mood and alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym each week either. Enjoy daily walks, practice yoga, lift weights a few times a week, or create a plan that combines aerobic, strength, and flexibility training. 
  • Create a Sleep Routine: Poor sleep is related to poor blood sugar control and an increased risk of depression.8, 9 Aim for 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night.
  • Reduce Your Stress: Incorporating mindfulness and stress reduction techniques can also be beneficial.  Practices like meditation, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation can help in managing stress, a common trigger for both mental health issues and blood sugar fluctuations.

How Signos Can Help

Signos is here to help you track and evaluate progress as you incorporate lifestyle interventions to manage your mental health and blood sugars

Learn more about Signos and take the quick free quiz to find out if it’s the next right step for you and your health and wellness goals.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="can-anxiety-cause-nausea">Why Anxiety Can Cause Nausea and What You Can Do About It</a>.</p>

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References

  1. Moulton, C. D., Pickup, J. C., & Ismail, K. (2015). The link between depression and diabetes: the search for shared mechanisms. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, 3(6), 461-471.Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4863499/
  2. National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2021). Biochemistry, Insulin Metabolic Effects. In StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507839/
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). Mental Health Conditions: Depression and Anxiety. MMWR Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 72(24). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/72/wr/mm7224a1.htm
  4. Li, G., Mbuagbaw, L., Samaan, Z., Falavigna, M., Zhang, S., Adachi, J. D., ... & Thabane, L. (2015). Efficacy of vitamin D supplementation in depression in adults: a systematic review. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 100(3), 1001-1013. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26109579/
  5. Lopresti, A. L., & Drummond, P. D. (2019). The effects of obesity and lifestyle interventions on inflammatory markers, depression, and quality of life in overweight and obese individuals. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10, 57. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00057/full
  6. Lopresti, A. L., Hood, S. D., & Drummond, P. D. (2015). A review of lifestyle factors that contribute to important pathways associated with major depression: Diet, sleep and exercise. Journal of Affective Disorders, 179, 12-27. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4476048/
  7. Michigan State University Extension. (n.d.). Understanding cortisol, the stress hormone. Retrieved from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/understanding_cortisol_the_stress_hormone
  8. Hackett, R. A., & Steptoe, A. (2021). Type 2 diabetes mellitus and psychological stress — a modifiable risk factor. Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 17(9), 547-560. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00125-021-05608-y
  9. Firth, J., Solmi, M., Wootton, R. E., Vancampfort, D., Schuch, F. B., Hoare, E., ... & Siskind, D. (2021). A meta-review of “lifestyle psychiatry”: The role of exercise, smoking, diet and sleep in the prevention and treatment of mental disorders. World Psychiatry, 20(3), 394-409. Retrieved fromhttps://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016503272101034X

About the author

Kelsey Kunik is a registered dietitian, health and wellness writer, and nutrition consultant

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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