The impact stress has on diabetes

Stress is a risk factor in developing type II diabetes. Here are some strategies to help minimize its impact that you can incorporate into your daily routine to better manage the stress you have in your own life.

Nov 15, 2022
Will Murtagh, PT, DPT, CSCS
man stressing out over a computer

When you think about how someone should prevent or even help to treat their prediabetes or type II diabetes, you most likely would think of improving the quality of their diet as well as increasing their frequency of exercise, and you would be correct in that thinking. But what many people don’t realize is that stress management plays a large role in both preventing and treating type II diabetes. Recent research shows that depression, chronic stress, and early life adversity are risk factors in developing type II diabetes. Here is the role stress has on the disease, as well as strategies to help minimize its impact that you can incorporate into your daily routine to better manage the stress you have in your own life.

Before we begin, it is important to define what stress is and what the different kinds of stress are so that we can be precise in what we are both speaking about and if what we are attempting to manage or reduce each type. Stress is defined as a physical or mental response to an external cause. The external cause is defined as the “stressor,” which can be anything that causes you to feel like you lack control or is a threat to your overall wellbeing. For example, in recent years, the Covid-19 virus could be viewed as a stressor due to the degree of illness those who were at risk faced if they caught it. Having a big school or work project with an upcoming deadline can also be a stressor, especially if you feel you lack the time to complete it.

There are also different kinds of stress such as distress, which is “bad” stress, and eustress which is seen as “good” stress. Distress is seen as a negative situation, such as feeling overwhelmed, that cause decreases in your mental health and daily function3. On the other hand, eustress is stress that is motivating, positive, and enhances your daily function. A major difference between the two are the thoughts and beliefs of an individual pertaining to their ability to overcome the stressor. With regards to stress management for the prevention of type II diabetes, distress is the stress we would aim to minimize.

When distress becomes chronic, there are biologic responses that occur inside the body due to the body’s natural “fight or flight” response that can have negative impacts on your long term health. Sustained stress leads to a dysregulation of glucose metabolism and hormone function, as well as an increase in chronic low grade inflammation1. With this dysregulation and increase in cortisol into the blood stream, the likelihood of developing type II diabetes rises significantly.

Similarly, chronic stress can impact an individual’s daily behaviors that can also put them at risk for developing type II diabetes. For example, high chronic stress has been shown to decrease the quality of food choices, the frequency of physical activity, and the adherence to medications, all of which can play their own role in mitigating the risk of developing the disease as well as treating it.

Strategies that can help to minimize the risk of developing type II diabetes include techniques to help us cope with and decrease the magnitude of distress in our daily lives. Many of these not only help to decrease stress, but also have other physiological effects that can help you to live a better and healthier life. Such techniques include getting outside and playing with friends or family members, going for walks in nature, starting a meditation or yoga practice, reading a book or short story, or going to the gym to exercise. Methods that can help decrease the magnitude of stress in our lived include breaking down big projects into smaller more manageable tasks, asking for help if you feel you need it, and reframing yourself talk to shift negative thoughts into positive ones.

Stress is a part of our daily lives. Stress can be motivating for us to get things done and accomplish our goals, but it can also lead us to feel anxiety and decrease our quality of life. As you have seen, poorly managed stress can also put our health in jeopardy and put us at risk for diseases like Type II Diabetes. This is why it is important to develop ways to help manage the stress in your own life and seek out help from qualified professionals if you think that you need help.

Will Murtagh

Will Murtagh

Will Murtagh, DPT, CSCS, CISSN, CF-L1, is a physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist based in Hamden. He specializes in sports and orthopedic physical therapy, with a subspecialty in sports nutrition.