Written by: Emily J., MSc RD
Reviewed by: Dr. Vimal Ramjee, MD, FACC
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Stress is a normal physiological process, but what happens when you experience too much of it? Learn about the impact of stress on metabolic health — and how to manage it in your everyday life.
Stress is typically a little-noticed but highly impactful factor when it comes to affecting metabolic health. Here, we’ll dive into how stress impacts metabolic health and all the ways you can manage stress for better sleep, food choices, peace of mind, and glucose control.
Due to our always-on-the-go culture, most of us are familiar with stress in some form or another. Stress can come in many forms, like emotional, physiological, acute, or chronic stress.
Emotional stress is things like facing pressure at work, relationship problems, or financial concerns, while physical stress affects the body and its functions.
Whether physical or emotional, your bodily response is similar. However, two types of stress that have very different effects on health are acute and chronic stress.
Acute stress is an immediate, “fight-or-flight” response to any real or perceived threat. Your brain sets alarm bells off to the central nervous system, which then increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels, giving you the energy to run from or fight off an attack from a larger predator .
This is a normal physiological process, and that spike in blood glucose you see on your CGM graph is your body is trying to protect you from harm. However, repeated instances of acute stress instances can lead to chronic stress.
Chronic stress is repeated exposure to physically or emotionally stressful situations that, over time, can lead to metabolic dysfunction.
Chronic stress causes your body to remain in that high-alert state for longer than it was meant to, which eventually causes your insulin and glucose responses to break down, putting you at a higher risk of fatigue, poor food choices, weight gain, insulin resistance, and cardiovascular disease [2, 3].
Getting rid of stress in your life can be a challenge, especially since it’s not always easy to opt out of stressful situations (like a job, for example).
But knowing how to manage your response in the face of stress can make all the difference — and prevent the onset of chronic stress.
Deep breathing is a great stress management tool because it can be utilized anytime, anywhere. When faced with a stressful situation, try breathing in through your nose to the count of four, then out through your mouth to the count of four.
This will help slow your breathing, slow your heart rate, and calm your nervous system, which studies have shown can help lower cortisol levels and reduce blood glucose [4, 5].
Being a regular exerciser can make you better at managing your emotions when a stressful situation arises, but what if you’re not a regular exerciser ?
The good news is that just 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise can improve your mood, and upwards of 10 minutes of walking can help reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels, which in turn can help reduce blood glucose [7, 8].
Time in nature has been a well-studied method of reducing stress . Whether it’s a picnic on the beach, a walk in the woods, or a hike, studies show that getting out of the house and into some green space can help you reduce cortisol levels, increase feelings of calmness, and kick that acute stress.
You’ve probably heard of the term “stress eating,” and studies suggest that stress can make you reach for more highly-caloric, highly-palatable foods .
Studies show that repeated intake of sugar during stress affects neural pathways in your brain, dampening cortisol response over time . This dampening of cortisol reduces stress in the moment, but, much like insulin response becomes dysregulated from repeated high glucose, cortisol response may become dysregulated by repeatedly reaching for high-sugar items during stress, effectively worsening your body’s ability to handle stressful situations .
Instead, balance your plate with fiber, lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs. This will help you manage blood glucose in the face of stress and skip the stress-eating.
We know that sleep is connected to metabolic health and that bad sleep can contribute to poor glucose utilization and insulin response. Studies have shown that sleep is associated with increased feelings of stress and irritability, and poor mood .
Try these sleep hacks to improve your sleep habits and hygiene, curb stress levels, and improve your metabolic health.
For other tips on improving your metabolic health, learn what you can change about your diet, exercise routine, and sleep habits.