Does Stress Affect Blood Sugar?

blood sugar check

Andriy Onufriyenko / Getty Images

Stress is a powerful thing, and while we usually think of it as affecting our moods, it can also have profound effects on our bodies, including our ability to regulate blood sugar. As stress hormones are released, our insulin levels drop, which can cause a rise in blood sugar. This can be particularly serious for someone who has diabetes or pre-diabetes.

Let’s take a look at the relationship between stress and blood sugar: how stress causes blood sugar fluctuations, possible complications, and how you can manage both stress and blood sugar levels.

The Connection Between Stress and Blood Sugar

Most of us associate spikes in blood sugar with dietary choices, such as eating too much sugar or too many carbs. But many elements can affect how our bodies regulate blood sugar, including dehydration, heat and sun exposure, and skipping meals. Stress, including life circumstances, illness, and lack of sleep, is also a contributing factor when it comes to blood sugar regulation.

When you are stressed, the “stress response” is triggered in your body. This sends a cascade of hormones, including cortisol, to be released. Cortisol can significantly affect our bodies, including our inflammatory response, immune system, and metabolism.

High levels of stress can:

  • Elevate cortisol levels, with impacts how our bodies metabolize sugar
  • Elevate our glucose (blood sugar) levels
  • Inhibit the release of insulin, which regulates blood sugar
  • Change our body’s sensitivity to insulin release
  • Make our body more resistant to insulin

Additionally, when you are experiencing increased levels of stress, you are more likely to eat poorly, skip meals, and sleep badly, all of which can also contribute to unregulated blood sugar issues.

Risk Factors

Certain risk factors may increase the likelihood that you will increase a blood sugar issue related to stress, including:

  • Having a history of depression
  • Experiencing chronic stress related to work
  • Experiencing adversity early in life
  • Having the propensity to react to stress by making unhealthy food choices, reducing physical activity, and neglecting to take diabetes medication

Complications of Stress and Blood Sugar

Both stress and blood sugar changes can have negative effects on a person’s health and well being.

If you have diabetes, stress can:

  • Make it more difficult for you to regulate your blood pressure, and can increase the risk of heart issues
  • Make it more challenging for you to continue your daily routines around regulating blood sugar, and cause your body to wear down
  • Increase your blood pressure, raise your heart rate, and cause a spike in blood sugar

If you experience a spike in blood pressure as a result of stress, you can experience symptoms such as fatigue or depression. If your blood pressure becomes too low, you may feel jittery, unhappy, and anxious.

When to See a Doctor

Changes in blood sugar aren’t just unpleasant: at times, they can be dangerous. Please call your healthcare provider right away or go to the nearest emergency if you are diabetic and experience the following symptoms:

  • Racing heart and quick breathing
  • Dry mouth and skin
  • More frequent urination or thirst for several days
  • Breath that has a fruity scent
  • Flushed skin
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Headache
  • Achy, stiff muscles

Diagnosis of Stress and Blood Sugar

Stress and blood sugar are connected but require separated diagnoses. Here’s what to know.

Diagnosing Stress

Stress isn’t something people usually get diagnosed with. It’s a pretty common mood and emotional state that many of us find ourselves in from time to time. Stress is a typical response to difficult life circumstances, including in relationships, work, or reactions to world events.  

Sometimes, however, stress can be chronic, and in this case, it’s possible to be diagnosed with a stress disorder. Two common stress disorders are acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both of these are stress reactions related to traumatic events, but acute stress disorder is diagnosed within about a month of the event, and PTSD is diagnosed when the stress persists past a month.

Diagnosing Diabetes

You would need to go to a primary care doctor or an endocrinologist to get a diagnosis of diabetes or pre-diabetes. Diabetes is diagnosed by evaluating your blood sugar. Various tests are used in a diabetes diagnosis, such as:

  • Oral glucose tolerance test
  • Random plasma glucose test
  • Fasting plasma glucose test
  • A1c test (a blood test)

Treatment of Stress and Blood Sugar

The good news is that both stress and blood sugar complications are treatable. Stress is usually treated with psychotherapy and stress management techniques. Diabetes is treated with medication, along with diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes.

Diabetes Treatments

If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, you will need to take a medication called insulin, which helps your body regulate blood sugar. You will also need to monitor your blood glucose levels at home.

Additionally, you will need to stick to a diet that is low in sugar and carbohydrates but rich in protein, healthy fats, fiber, fruits and vegetables. If you are overweight, you will likely be advised to lose weight. Your cholesterol and blood pressure will need to be monitored, along with your blood sugars. You should quit smoking if you are diagnosed with diabetes.

Stress Treatment

If you are experiencing stress, there are several different therapy treatment options that can help you manage your feelings, and react to stress in more healthy and balanced ways. Therapy types that work best for stress include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • Psychodynamic therapy
  • Eye movement desensitization resolution (EMDR)

Coping With Stress and Blood Sugar

Stress can be stressful! And when your blood sugar is affected, this can only exacerbate the stress. Here’s the thing, though: both stress and blood sugar can be managed by making some simple lifestyle changes and by reaching out for support when needed.

Lifestyle Changes

Here are some lifestyle changes you can make that will both lower stress and blood sugar:

  • Make it a point to get enough sleep every night
  • Stay hydrated
  • Eat regular meals that are focused on whole foods rather than processed foods
  • Take some time each day to relax your mind
  • Try mindfulness and meditation
  • Refrain from smoking and drinking alcohol
  • Exercise daily
  • Take mental health days off when you can
  • Learn to say no to obligations when you feel overwhelmed

Support Groups

If you’ve been newly diagnosed with diabetes, support is vital. Use this link from the Defeat Diabetes Foundation to find a diabetes support group in your state.


Stress releases cortisol, which can change the way your body produces and uses insulin. This can cause changes in your blood sugar levels, which may be particularly serious for someone who has diabetes. Thankfully, reducing stress can effectively address this problem and can help keep your blood sugar levels in check.

A Word From Verywell

Discovering that your blood sugar fluctuates in response to stress can be distressing in and of itself. Please remember that this is common, and there are simple and effective ways to address it. Most importantly, you should be in touch with your healthcare provider if you notice changes in your blood sugar readings. If you are finding your stress levels difficult to manage, please reach out to a therapist or counselor.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Wong H, Singh J, Go RM, et al. The Effects of Mental Stress on Non-insulin-dependent Diabetes: Determining the Relationship Between Catecholamine and Adrenergic Signals from Stress, Anxiety, and Depression on the Physiological Changes in the Pancreatic Hormone Secretion. Cureus. 2019 Aug 24;11(8):e5474. doi:10.7759/cureus.5474

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Manage Blood Sugar.

  3. Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. StatPearls Publishing.

  4. Wong H, Singh J, Go RM, et al. The Effects of Mental Stress on Non-insulin-dependent Diabetes: Determining the Relationship Between Catecholamine and Adrenergic Signals from Stress, Anxiety, and Depression on the Physiological Changes in the Pancreatic Hormone Secretion. Cureus. 2019 Aug 24;11(8):e5474. doi:10.7759/cureus.5474

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Diabetes: Stress & Depression.

  6. Hackett RA, Steptoe A. Type 2 diabetes mellitus and psychological stress — a modifiable risk factor. Nature Reviews Endocrinology. 2017;13:547–560. doi:10.1038/nrendo.2017.64

  7. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Acute Stress Disorder.

  8. Cleveland Clinic. Diabetes: An Overview.

  9. University of Minnesota. What Types of Psychotherapy Are Helpful for Anxiety and Depression?

  10. Cleveland Clinic. Stress.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.