Updated 17 February 2017

Diabetes and stress

Everyone experiences a certain amount of stress in their lives. This is unavoidable. But undue stress can make it harder for you to control your diabetes.


Everyone experiences a certain amount of stress in their lives. This is unavoidable. But undue stress can make it harder for you to control your diabetes.

When is the body under stress?

Stress occurs when something happens that makes your body behave as if it were being attacked. The source of this stress can be physical, like when you fall or someone strikes you, or emotional, such as when you worry about a possible retrenchment or marriage problems. When your body gears up as if wanting to take action, the levels of many hormones increase. This bodily response is called the fight-or-flight response.

Sometimes your body can have this response for a long period of time, such as when you are having relationship problems. What happens here is that your blood sugar levels can be kept high for a long time by the hormones your body keeps on pumping out and by the lengthy stress you are experiencing.

Why is this a problem for diabetics?

This response is not very good for people who have diabetes, as insulin is not always available to let extra energy into the cells, so the glucose increases in your bloodstream.

Long-term stress can affect diabetics in several ways. Firstly, people who are under constant stress may not take such good care of themselves as far as medication, diet and exercise are concerned. They may also forget to test their blood glucose levels or take their medication at the right time. Stress eating and drinking could also play havoc with your blood glucose levels. This is applicable to both type 1 and type 2 diabetics.

Stress stops the body from releasing enough insulin in type 2 diabetics. As type 1 diabetics don’t produce insulin, stress reduction can only benefit them in that it enables them to take better care of themselves. For Type 2 diabetics, stress management can be very beneficial.

Stress management

Learning to choose your reactions to stress can be very helpful. Learn to put things in perspective – it is possible that you upset yourself unnecessarily. There are also things you can do to relieve stress, such as changing your working hours in order to avoid the traffic, not fighting with your spouse half an hour before bedtime and getting earplugs to dull the sound of the neighbours’ barking dogs.

Go for relaxation therapy or speak to a counsellor who may be able to help you with relaxation techniques. Get some exercise, whether it is in a gym, walking , swimming, team sports or cycling. Exercise always helps to relieve stress. Learn to do proper breathing exercises or go for yoga classes.

It takes time to learn to relax, and it is also something, which must be practiced.

Accept the fact that some sources of stress will never go away. Life is stressful, having diabetes is stressful, relationships and work can be stressful, having children is stressful. While you cannot eliminate these realities from your life, you can learn to manage the stress levels in such a way that they don’t have a negative impact on your life, your blood glucose levels and your ability to manage your diabetes. - (Health24, updated February 2010)


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Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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