Stressed out woman with raised blood sugar levels covering face with hands

Can stress raise blood sugar levels?

Medically reviewed on September 30, 2022 by Karen Janson, MS, MD. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Stress can have a direct effect on your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. Think of your body as a lifeboat. As we float through our lives, our bodies are designed to respond and adapt to a constant sea of unique physical and psychological pressures.

Often, the first step towards a healthier you is understanding how your body works. This information is valuable whether you are looking to manage a new health issue, address a long-standing medical concern, develop a healthier lifestyle, or simply learn more about how your body functions on a day-to-day basis.

So, can stress raise blood sugar levels? This overview will walk you through how stress and anxiety can affect your body’s blood sugar levels. Read on to find your sea legs and identify actionable solutions for stress management that could have a significant impact on your overall well-being.

What is stress?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stress as any combination of emotional, psychological, or physical changes that pressure the body. [1] Stress triggers a series of physical responses in our bodies that push us into a mild to an intense state of “fight-or-flight.”

Fight-or-flight is an evolutionary trigger connected to our sympathetic nervous system, a complex network of nerves and hormonal signals that process both emotional and physical sensations. In threatening situations, the nervous system kicks in to prioritize survival. [2]

The different categories of stress are:

  • Emotional stress – This category denotes stress that involves intense psychological responses like panic or grief. Mental Health America reports that stress-related anxiety is one of the most common health issues in the US. [3]
  • Physical stress – Refers to changes affecting the body’s health. Physical stress may be prolonged, like infection or illness, or brief, like the challenge of vigorous exercise.

Important stress hormones

Stress hormones are secreted in high supply when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Examples include: [4]

  • Epinephrine – Also known as adrenaline, epinephrine manages the production of glucose or sugar in the liver to supply fuel for energy. Epinephrine also increases heart rate and blood circulation.
  • Glucagon – Produced by the pancreas, glucagon similarly manages glucose production.
  • Cortisol – Among other functions, this stress hormone keeps the brain alert and controls appetite. Cortisol also increases glucose production in the liver.

Some effects of these hormones can be beneficial. Adrenaline, for example, helps our body make it across the finish line and complete an important examination on time. Prolonged stress and elevated stress hormones, however, take a toll on the body.

What are signs of stress?

Stress can manifest differently in everyone. When we encounter stress, and our body releases a cascade of stress hormones, the response may present itself in the following ways: [5]

  • Increased heart rate and respiratory rate
  • Increased perspiration and sweaty palms
  • Changes in appetite, with eventual weight fluctuations
  • Insomnia or changes in sleep patterns
  • A decline in pre-existing health conditions
  • Muscle tension
  • Alterations in mood, such as increased fear, worry, tearfulness, or anger

Our body may experience a variety of reactions depending on the type of stress, the duration of stress, and the magnitude of our response. For example, the discomfort of sitting in an uncomfortable chair may cause your back muscles to spasm, while giving a speech to a crowd of people may cause your heart rate to jump.

It’s important to remember that both physical and mental stressors can result in physical signs and symptoms. Stress can also have ramifications on the body that are invisible to the eye.

Does stress affect blood glucose levels?

Stress can increase your glucose levels. Glucose is the sugar content in the blood, produced in the liver, that serves as the main energy source for a body’s cells. When we encounter stress, our bodies release adrenaline, a hormone that triggers increased glucose production. [6]

This immediate signal for more glucose is part of our body’s physiological fight-or-flight response. Increased glucose ensures that we have enough energy to act in dangerous situations.

While short-term stress can cause a blood sugar spike, levels should eventually normalize. These spikes can be beneficial to someone who needs an extra push to get through a stressful event. However, conditions of chronic stress encourage consistent overproduction of glucose, sometimes resulting in serious health conditions.

Other factors that may affect blood sugar levels

Most foods contain some variety of sugar. When we consume these sugars, the sugar or glucose content in our blood increases. Insulin, a hormone secreted by our pancreas, helps control our blood sugar levels.

There are also a variety of non-dietary factors that can kick these hormones into overdrive and increase our blood sugar level. Though a natural flux in blood sugar is part of everyday life and isn’t usually cause for concern, if abnormal stressors become routine, you may suffer health complications. The CDC names the following “surprising triggers” that can increase blood sugar levels: [7]

  • Waking up – In the morning hours, cortisol and other hormones signal an increase in glucose production to help give your body sufficient energy to wake up. This occurrence is identified as the “dawn phenomenon.” The dawn effect can complicate treatment of type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes.
  • Skipping a meal – Leaving breakfast on the table can cause your body to release additional glucose to compensate for the lack of calories and maintain energy levels.
  • Lack of sleep – The Sleep Foundation indicates that without sleep, our bodies build resistance to insulin, the hormone that regulates our blood sugar. Even partial sleep deprivation can have an impact. [8]
  • Sunburns – Consistent pain due to sunburn is a physical stressor that can lead to an increase in stress hormones and a subsequent rise in the blood glucose level.
  • Dehydration – Dehydration means there’s less water content in your body than normal. This can result in a relatively higher concentration of sugar in your bloodstream.

How stress can affect diabetes

Diabetes is a long-term, or chronic, health condition in which insulin is unable to effectively manage the body’s glucose, causing abnormal amounts of sugar to build up in the bloodstream. There are two main types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 – develops when the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin are attacked by the body’s immune system, causing a loss of insulin production. Insulin, as you know, is the body’s natural blood sugar regulator.
  • Type 2 – develops when the body becomes resistant to insulin, leaving blood glucose levels poorly controlled. Eventually, the body also fails to produce enough insulin.
Although stress does not directly cause diabetes, stress can worsen the signs and symptoms of Diabetes Type 1 and Type 2 in the following ways:
  • Unhealthy eating habits – Stress can alter eating patterns and often encourage overeating which, in turn, can contribute to excessive blood sugar levels.
  • Lack of sufficient sleep – Chronic stress can lead to poor sleep, which appears to worsen insulin resistance.
  • Increased stress hormones – Hormones released during the fight-or-flight response can cause a rise in blood sugar or hyperglycemia. Stress and the hormone release that follows can also cause increased insulin resistance, making it harder for insulin to work.

In addition, researchers at Diabetes UK have identified a link between high levels of stress hormones and a reduction in insulin production that may contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes. [9]

How to reduce anxiety and stress

While there’s no cure-all for daily or chronic anxiety and stress, there are coping mechanisms that can help keep stress levels at bay. The Anxiety and Depression Society of America suggest the following actions for stress management: [10]

  • Eat balanced meals at regular intervals – Ensuring adequate nutrition and water intake will help the body recover from stress. Exercise daily – Exercise can help elevate mood, release muscle tension, and lower the amounts of the stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, in your body.
  • Do breathing exercises – Mindful breathing can help mitigate symptoms of stress and anxiety, such as elevated heart rate. Gundersen Health recommends the 4-7-8 breathing technique: Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale from your mouth for 8 counts. [11]
  • Talk with family and friends – Finding a supportive community can significantly reduce emotional and psychological stress.
  • Maintain a healthy sleep routine – During sleep, your body regulates several internal systems. The Sleep Foundation notes that inflammation builds during the day, and wanes or returns to normal through the night. People who fail to get enough rest, and experience persistent inflammation, are at an increased risk of diabetes and other serious health issues. [12]
  • Identify your triggers – Whether it’s a stack of paperwork, a family event, low air quality, or a crowded subway, acknowledging your stressors can help you engineer a more balanced life that keeps your head above water.

Working the above recommendations into a daily routine can help you roll with any wave of stress. That said, if self-management is unsuccessful, consider speaking with a therapist or healthcare professional to identify solutions.

Stay on top of your blood sugar levels with Everlywell

Keeping afloat while maintaining healthy blood sugar levels day in and day out is no small feat. Our environments are full of pressures that can affect our health and wellness.

Our HbA1c Test Kit will help you evaluate your HbA1c level the past 90 days and better understand your body’s blood glucose control. Everlywell can help you conquer life’s ebbs and flows and steer you toward a healthier horizon.

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  1. Stress. World Health Organization. URL. Published October 12, 2021. Accessed September 29, 2022.
  2. Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health. URL. Published July 6, 2020. Accessed September 29, 2022.
  3. Quick facts and statistics about mental health. Mental Health America. URL. Accessed September 29, 2022.
  4. Blood sugar & other hormones. Diabetes Education Online. URL. Accessed September 29, 2022.
  5. Stress. Mental Health Foundation. URL. Published September 17, 2021. Accessed September 29, 2022.
  6. Why Does Exercise Sometimes Raise Blood Glucose? American Diabetes Association. Accessed September 2022. URL.
  7. 10 surprising things that can spike your blood sugar. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published July 28, 2022. Accessed September 29, 2022.
  8. Pacheco D. Sleep & glucose: How blood sugar can affect rest. Sleep Foundation. URL. Published September 12, 2022. Accessed September 29, 2022.
  9. Stress and diabetes. Diabetes UK. URL. Accessed September 29, 2022.
  10. Jamias J. How exercise reduces stress and anxiety. SelectHealth. URL. Accessed September 29, 2022.
  11. Tips and strategies to manage anxiety and stress. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. URL. Accessed September 29, 2022.
  12. Suni E. Sleep & immunity: Can a lack of sleep make you sick? Sleep Foundation. URL. Published April 22, 2022. Accessed September 29, 2022.
  13. 4-7-8 breathing technique. Gundersen Health System. URL. Published February 17, 2022. Accessed September 29, 2022.
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