Lifestyle

How Stress Impacts Glucose Metabolism

4 minutes read

Stress is your body’s natural response to challenging or threatening situations. Stress has both physical and psychological effects, including the production of cortisol which impacts glucose metabolism [1].

While some stress is beneficial – like stress from exercise – too much stress for too long can interfere with glucose regulation, negatively impacting metabolic health [2].

Understanding how stress and cortisol affect glucose metabolism and adopting healthy coping mechanisms for stress is important for optimizing your metabolic health and well-being.

Cortisol and glucose metabolism

Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” has been shown to affect glucose metabolism, and the relationship between cortisol and insulin resistance is well documented. 

In Cushing’s syndrome, for example, a condition marked by elevated cortisol, high blood sugar results from increased insulin resistance and decreased glucose disposal [3]. 

Ultimately, cortisol increases blood glucose in several ways — and when you use a CGM, or continuous glucose monitor, you can identify how physical and psychological stressors affect your glucose response. 

Below are two instances of how stress, or elevated cortisol, impacted one Veri user’s morning routine. The first example can be seen through the variance in meal scores

This individual’s usual breakfast – a low-carb egg’wich and avocado – typically yields a meal score of 9 or 10, indicating a favorable glucose response. On a stressful day, however, the glucose spike was exaggerated and remained elevated, resulting in a meal score of 7.

meal score depicting effects of stress on glucose levels

When cortisol is released to combat physical  — or in this case, work-related — psychological stress, one consequence is reduced insulin sensitivity [4]. When cells are less insulin-sensitive and more insulin-resistant, a lower meal score can result.

A few hours later, this user joined her family at the poolside to kick back and read a book. See how just a few moments of self-care translated to a dip in glucose. As a result of decreased cortisol, insulin sensitivity and glucose regulation improved.

decreased cortisol effects on insulin sensitivity and glucose regulation

In times of high stress, elevated cortisol increases baseline and post-meal glucose levels. 

Learning how to manage stress for metabolic health is vital to maximizing glucose metabolism and feeling your best, inside and out. 

Managing stress for metabolic health

Managing stress doesn’t mean eliminating it altogether. It’s important to recognize that everyday stressors are bound to surface, and learning how to work with — not against — your body is one piece of the puzzle. 

Like Goldilocks and the three bears, you want to have just the right amount of stress — not too much or too little.

Everyone’s window of tolerance varies, so the amount of stress you can handle looks different compared to a friend, spouse, or co-worker.

Finding healthy coping mechanisms to relieve stress means you can optimize both mental and metabolic health. Get the most out of your daily routine and try one or more of the following:

  • Balance stress and rest. When you are well-rested, mental focus and productivity improve. Clean up your sleep hygiene for more energy and improved glucose control. 
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity has been shown to positively affect mental health, reducing cortisol levels and helping maintain blood sugar balance.
  • Practice mindfulness – Focusing your attention on the present moment, rather than worrying about the past or future, helps lower cortisol levels [5].
  • Limit alcohol. Imbibing reduces sleep quality, and alcohol affects glucose sensitivity the following day. 
  • Keep a journal – Writing down your thoughts and emotions can be a helpful way to process feelings of stress or anxiety [6].

Experiment with different strategies to see what suits you best. Like any habit, stress reduction is highly-individual. When you can effectively manage stress, you’ll benefit from improved glucose metabolism and further optimize metabolic function.

Kayla Girgen is an online Registered Dietitian and Certified Personal Trainer specializing in weight management and bariatric nutrition. Kayla’s holistic approach to weight loss helps you learn how to work with your body — not against it. With CGM, Kayla’s clients see first-hand how certain food, exercise, stress, and sleep impact their metabolism to maximize weight loss and metabolic wellness. Read more from Kayla on her blog.

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18787373/ 
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8130620/
  4. https://dtc.ucsf.edu/types-of-diabetes/type2/understanding-type-2-diabetes/how-the-body-processes-sugar/blood-sugar-stress/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/
  6. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx

Written by: Kayla Girgen, RD, LD
Reviewed by: Emily Johnson, MSc RD

Table of Contents

  • Cortisol and glucose metabolism
  • Managing stress for metabolic health

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