Is there a relationship between stress and blood sugar levels?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mom, recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, has a tendency to get upset and anxious. Do stress levels have an impact on her blood sugar, and if so, what can I do to help? How can I help her mitigate stress and blood sugar levels?

Expert Answer

Theresa Garnero is clinical nurse manager of Diabetes Services at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

Yes, absolutely. Physical and mental stress can cause blood sugar levels to skyrocket. Some people with type 2 diabetes see their numbers soar 100, 200 points or more under stress. And it's not just "bad" stress like illness, injury, or bankruptcy that can trigger such a response. Don't overlook how "good" stress -- like out-of-town visitors, vacations, retirement, and holidays -- can affect your parent.

What can you do to help? First, work with your mother to identify the sources of her stress. Ask her to make a note of stressful events when she records her blood sugar readings. That may help you figure out whether stress is a contributing factor.

Chronic stress, such as that caused by ongoing financial worries or the pain of arthritis, may warrant an adjustment to her medications, since long-term stress is particularly taxing to the body. If this is the case, discuss the situation with her doctor.

Temporary stress -- say, a minor illness or a big family event -- can also bump her numbers to harmful heights. Help your mother stick with her treatment plan even when she feels frazzled. During tense times, people with diabetes are more prone to poor eating, dehydration, skipping exercise, forgetting their medications, or neglecting glucose checks.

Remember, too, that diabetes itself is a stressful condition, and the endless effort necessary to manage the disease can cause depression or anxiety in even the staunchest person.

Try to help your mother find ways to relieve stress in her life on a regular basis. Encourage her to take up an activity she enjoys, like walking or dancing, or a pastime like playing cards or making crafts. Calming pursuits such as yoga, meditation, or practicing relaxation techniques can also relieve stress.

Talk with your mother's diabetes educator about finding a support group for her, as this can be a great way for her to unwind. If stress is a significant problem for your mother, look for a certified diabetes educator who's also a licensed clinical social worker. These professionals aren't easy to find, but some diabetes centers and clinics do have them on staff. Ask your parent's doctor or another member of her healthcare team for a referral to one -- or to another mental health expert such as a therapist or psychologist.