Stress and Acute Insulin Resistance

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We all know stress is a factor in blood sugar management. We know that stress triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream, and these hormones increase blood sugar. We know that beyond the purely physiological effects of stress, chronic stress can lead to depression, which in turn can lower our motivation for blood sugar management and lead to feelings of hopelessness that often go hand-in-hand with poor choices in diet, lack of exercise, and more. We know stress is a danger that has real effects on our ability to manage diabetes.

But stress has one more trick up its sleeve that I wasn’t even aware of until recently. Let me give a little personal backstory before the science — I’ve been in a fairly stressed out, wretched state for the past several months. So much so, in fact, that I wasn’t even aware of how stressed out and miserable I was until a close family member kindly (but directly) informed me that communicating with me was becoming an exceedingly unpleasant experience. A quick search through my e-mail sent folder confirmed this. Nearly every communication was a list of “what’s wrong today” and nothing more. I read through my Facebook history, too — mostly just angry, irritable posts about how hopeless the future will be. During the same stretch of time, I noticed my blood sugars were simply skyrocketing. I was at one point DOUBLING my long-acting dose. That’s right — doubling. It was as off-kilter as I can remember it being at any point over the past few years. I understood that the stress I was experiencing was undoubtedly part of the problem, but it was hard for me to imagine that stress could cause such a massive surge.

But in the days after having that balloon so graciously popped by said family member, I have seen that insulin need drop almost back to baseline. This is in a matter of three to four days. That’s dramatic. And it got me to thinking again about the considerable effects of stress.

So here’s where the science comes in. I was searching online for articles about stress response and insulin given my recent massive fluctuation, and I came across a fascinating study. Researchers took a group of mice, and introduced acute stress (in the form of small electric shocks — the article made me feel bad for the mice, but the results were interesting) to one group, while leaving another group alone. The researchers would then measure the levels of insulin resistance in each group. What they found was that acute psychological stress not only brought about the already understood stress responses of increased cortisol production, adrenaline in the bloodstream, the release of sugar from the liver, and so on, but also a rapid and sudden increase in insulin resistance. So in other words, even the insulin that made it through that wall of hormonal bodyguards named cortisol and adrenaline was LESS EFFECTIVE at the cellular level due to this increased resistance.

The takeaway for me was this: Severe failure to manage stress can and DOES lead to severe effects on the body’s blood sugar management. In my case, I saw a near doubling of my long-acting doses. Now, some of that may have been because my body was fighting off a virus or something like that, but I can’t help but notice that the most severe surging in my own insulin needs just happened to coincide with the most severe surging in chronic and unmanaged stress I’ve had in a long time — as soon as that severe stress was pointed out to me and I took measures to get a grip on it, that surge in insulin need suddenly and dramatically dropped.

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