Stress is inevitable. Whether it's sudden or long-term, good or bad, stress affects your body in many different ways.
But what is the link between stress and blood sugar and when can it become a problem?
This article explains:
You've heard of the “fight or flight” stress response—it’s when your body gears up for a potential threat. Stress causes hormonal changes in your body to help you deal with the situation.
These hormones include cortisol, often dubbed the stress hormone. Its job is to work with other hormones, such as adrenaline, to help release glucose into your bloodstream and give you enough energy to face or get away from your stressor. As a result, your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar increase.
In modern life, our stress can come from traffic jams, social media, and job dissatisfaction. Some stress is beneficial. It helps you reach your goals, like completing a challenging workout or a big presentation at work.
But when you don't manage stress effectively, it may lead to serious illnesses1, including:
Acute stress refers to a sudden, unexpected source of stress, such as a car accident or sudden bad news. After the initial shock, your system goes back to normal.
Chronic stress is when you experience high levels of stress over time—if your job causes you anxiety, or you're studying for an important exam, for example. This keeps your body in a constant state of fight or flight, leading to elevated blood pressure and blood sugar.
Both acute and chronic types of stress can be physical or psychological.
Physical stress presents itself as damage to your body, such as an injury, illness, surgery, or trauma. You can even experience bodily damage by eating foods that cause inflammation, for example, if you eat gluten when you have celiac disease, or drink milk and are lactose-intolerant. Dehydration can increase physical stress, too.
“Studies have shown that being just half a liter [17 ounces] dehydrated can increase your cortisol levels,” says Amanda Carlson-Phillips, RD, and VP of performance nutrition and research for EXOS in Phoenix, Ariz.
Psychological stress happens when you encounter emotional discomfort, such as struggling with grief, overwhelm, or anxiety that causes distressing thought patterns.
And then there's oxidative stress, part of the natural aging process. It’s caused by free radicals that are released during normal bodily functions, creating temporary inflammation. Too many free radicals in your body cause cell and tissue damage over time.
Many factors accelerate the production of excessive free radicals2, such as:
Free radicals may even play a role in the development of Alzheimer's disease3.
Let's say you're getting ready to give a speech to a large audience. You're feeling nervous and stressed, and your body begins to react.
Epinephrine, cortisol, growth hormone, and glucagon—the stress hormones—work together to release glucose into your bloodstream, among other changes. These changes help you stay sharp, focused, and give you extra energy.
Your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol to encourage your liver to produce more glucose.
Glucagon plays an active role in regulating how the body uses glucose and fats. It’s released when blood sugar levels are low in the body and when the body needs a burst of glucose for energy—exercise is a great example. It can mobilize stored glucose (known as glycogen) and stored fat for the body to use as energy without the release of insulin. During stress, glucagon levels rise to further promote the production of glucose.
Growth hormone, secreted from your pituitary gland in your brain, also halts the effects of insulin.
This sophisticated system works well for moments when you need to deal with a real threat or challenge.
But when you're constantly stressed out, your blood sugar levels can remain high.
To counteract high blood sugar, your pancreas releases insulin to either help your body use or store excess glucose. Over time, chronically elevated insulin levels may lead to insulin resistance, where you need even more insulin to help the cells absorb the extra glucose in the blood. Insulin resistance may lead to type 2 diabetes and other chronic illnesses4.
Stress causes higher blood sugar levels. To deal with the unwelcome feelings that stress brings, you may indulge in unhelpful behaviors and make the problem worse.
Do you crave ice cream, cookies, or greasy takeout after a stressful day? Turning to comfort foods feels reassuring at the moment, but they can be high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, or trans fats.
Ultra-processed foods made with added sugars and refined carbs provide a rush of energy, which gives you a temporary high, followed by a sugar crash. This repeated spiking of your blood sugar leads to more sugar cravings and creates a vicious cycle of eating sugary foods to cope with your stress.
The same area of your brain that controls the cortisol levels, called your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, also balances your sleep patterns. Higher levels of cortisol can lead to poor quality sleep. A study on healthy young adults5 revealed a possible link between sleep deprivation and glucose intolerance.
After your stressful event subsides, cortisol attempts to replenish the blood sugar that you lost. As sugar provides quick energy, you might crave a sugary fix.
If stressed-induced comfort eating worsens sugar cravings, what happens to all that extra sugar?
Your body tends to store unused excess sugar6, first as glycogen in your liver and muscles until storage capacity is met, and then as fat in your adipose tissue.
When you consistently eat sugar, your body will use it for energy without needing to access the glycogen (converted from glucose) stored in your liver and muscles, or the glucose converted to fat and stored in your adipose tissue. The more energy you consume that you don’t burn, the more that gets stored in your fat tissues—and the more weight you can gain.
You may have heard that stress leads to belly fat—but is it true, or just a myth?
The American Institute of Stress7 reports there is a correlation between higher cortisol levels and increased fat in the abdominal area.
Cortisol can mobilize triglycerides (fat) from storage and relocate them to visceral fat in your abdomen, around your organs.
To make matters worse, enzymes in visceral fat cells can produce cortisol on top of the cortisol produced by the adrenal glands.
Abnormally high visceral fat is associated with serious health implications, including cardiovascular disease and some cancers8.
How can you combat the effects of stress?
While you can't plan to block sudden bouts of stress, you can prevent and manage chronic stress. The following strategies can help.
Meditating consistently for even 10 minutes a day can lower stress levels, curb emotional eating, and help you feel more positive. If you're new to meditation, shorter sessions are especially effective and easier to schedule.
Different kinds of meditation can help, such as:
Try a few and see which ones work best for you.
Regular exercise increases fitness and lowers your stress levels.
The key is finding something you enjoy10 so you're more likely to stick with it. Activities like swimming, cycling, yoga, walking, and gardening can give you a moderate-intensity workout, and don't feel like a chore!
Exercise puts temporary stress on your body, but when done regularly, your body becomes better adapted at recovering more quickly.
Be sure not to overdo it, especially if you haven't exercised for some time. Ease into it to avoid injury or over-exertion.
To minimize cravings and high blood sugar, eat a balanced real-food diet full of minimally processed foods. Choose fresh fruit and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates with a lower glycemic index to ensure you get a wide variety of essential nutrients.
This means drastically cutting down on processed convenience foods, which often have little nutritional value and can be packed with added sugar.
Many unprocessed foods such as berries, nuts, beans, and dark leafy greens contain antioxidants, which help remove free radicals from your body and reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
Eating food that's nutrient-dense means you're less at risk of overeating, having cravings, and feeling sluggish afterward.
Some supplements may help lower your blood sugar, according to research.
Vitamin D is crucial for bone health but also plays a part in keeping blood sugar at healthy levels. According to a 2019 study on women, lower amounts of vitamin D may be associated with high blood glucose levels11.
If you struggle to get enough sunlight, a vitamin D supplement will help top up your levels.
Chromium could actively help lower insulin levels in people with higher fasting glucose, as suggested by one study on young, non-obese adults. Chromium significantly reduced fasting insulin levels12 after 90 days of supplementation.
You may not need a supplement if you eat a varied diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Magnesium could play a role in helping your body use glucose effectively. A study on healthy, middle-aged women showed that higher magnesium intake is associated with lower fasting insulin concentrations13 in non-diabetic women.
Stress has a profound effect on the body. It can be useful when we need to focus or rise to a challenge. Too much chronic stress, however, can cause higher blood sugar levels, which may cause serious health problems.
Make a plan to prevent chronic stress that includes eating a balanced real-food diet, getting plenty of enjoyable exercise, meditating, and talking to your doctor about adding proven supplements to help stabilize your blood sugar.