Diabetes and stress

Stress, sugar and stimulants each have powerful effects on your blood sugar control and it’s easy to get hooked into a vicious cycle. When you are stressed you may drink alcohol to calm you down. This common pattern wreaks havoc on your blood sugar balance. People with diabetes, or with metabolic syndrome, need to be especially careful of leading a stressful lifestyle because the stress greatly exacerbates their symptoms.

Why stress is so bad for you

When you feel stressed your body is preparing you for ‘fight or flight’. Unlike the past, when our ancestors were hunting for food or encountering wild animals, and stress helped them to react extremely quickly, ‘fight’ to modern people means you feel irritable, aggressive and stressed out, while ‘flight’ means you feel anxious and want to run away, feeling trapped in your circumstances. Do you ever feel like this?

Many people live in a state of anxiety. They arrive at work stressed out from commuting, then they have to contend with a lot of stress at work. By the time they go home they are in a state of near collapse. Unfortunately, a life of non-stop 21st-century stress takes its toll on your body’s chemistry.

The chemistry of stress

In such a state of stress your body is producing two hormones: short acting adrenalin and long-acting cortisol. Together, these hormones do everything they can to get your blood sugar level up: telling the liver to break down stores of glycogen, then turning it into glucose and pumping it into your bloodstream. This blocks the ability of insulin to take glucose back into storage. As a result, your blood sugar level goes up to get it round the body faster. You are gearing up for a fight. If you’re stressed for weeks at a time, your cortisol levels stay high and your DHEA levels – a healthy adrenal hormone – go down. This is bad news. High cortisol levels – the hallmark of the overstressed – make you even more insulin-resistant and even more prone to putting on weight. Let me explain why.

Insulin puts glucose into storage, whereas adrenalin and cortisol rapidly raise the glucose supply to muscle and brain cells for the action of ‘fight or flight’ – partly by blocking insulin’s fat-storing effect. That sounds like good news, at least in the short term. And it is. That’s why high stress and lots of stimulants, such as coffee, can keep you thin for quite a few years. (That might even be why coffee consumption is associated with a lower diabetes risk, because there is less weight gain, but the role of coffee as a stimulant is one of the reasons I’m cautious about condoning caffeine.) But when the effect of insulin is continually blocked, the body simply produces more – and the more it produces, the more insulin-resistant you become. So, over the long term, stress can actually lead to insulin resistance and weight gain.

How stressed are you?

Take a look at the symptoms below. If they sound familiar to you, then you know what I’m talking about.

  • Do you have difficulty in getting up in the morning?
  • Are you tired all the time?
  • Do you crave certain foods?
  • Do you feel anger, irritability or aggressiveness?
  • Do you have mood swings?
  • Are you restless?
  • Do you have an energy slump during the day?
  • Do you have regular feelings of weakness?
  • Do you feel apathy?
  • Are you depressed?
  • Do you feel cold all the time?

The above symptoms suggest adrenal stress overload. Most people report experiencing a high number of these kinds of symptoms.

The dangers of too much stress and cortisol

With long-term stress the adrenal hormone cortisol stays high. Meanwhile, the circulating levels of three chemicals that help you to relax decline – these are GABA, which switches off adrenalin; serotonin, which keeps you happy; and DHEA, the revitalising hormone. Your mood gets worse, your sleep gets worse, you have more and more blood sugar spikes and troughs, and produce more and more insulin as insulin resistance sets in.

Whenever your blood sugar level crashes, the body produces yet more cortisol. It thinks you are being starved and so it goes into panic mode. Your brain is literally working overtime and demanding more sugar so that your blood sugar levels stay high.

If you think about it, in a real state of emergency, certainly one where you are taking physical action, the last thing you want to do is eat. Your whole body gears up to liberate its stores of energy so that you can react quickly to the emergency. When you are really pumped up, stress acts as an appetite suppressant. Continued stress messes this up. Many people find they compulsively eat – and they eat all the wrong things, such as sugary foods. This is a recipe for disaster, because now you have cortisol trying to raise your blood sugar level, and interfering with insulin, and you have your blood sugar level rising from what you’ve eaten, telling your body to make more insulin. You end up with high blood glucose, high insulin and insulin resistance. This is the fast track to diabetes.

Among people with diabetes, the more perceived stress the higher the cortisol levels and the more they eat sugar.

How a low-GL diet helps you to cope with life’s difficulties

The amazing thing is that if you balance your blood sugar by following my low-GL diet and take the recommended supplements, it not only affects your weight but it also has wide-reaching benefits on your health, your mood and your ability to deal with the inevitable challenges of life. When you’re stressed, even molehills seem like mountains. When your energy levels are good and your mind is clear, life immediately smoothes out and calms down. People on my low-GL diet often report big improvements in mood, concentration and memory.

In an eight-week trial we ran on volunteers on the Holford Diet, almost all (94 per cent) reported greater energy, two-thirds had greater concentration, memory or alertness, and half reported fewer feelings of depression and had more stable moods.

The way back from stress

The only way out of the prison of stress, sugar and stimulants is:

  1. To reduce or avoid all forms of concentrated sweetness, tea, coffee, alcohol and cigarettes, and start eating foods that help to keep your blood sugar level stable. By changing to the right foods, backed up with specific nutritional supplements, most people feel an amazing improvement in energy within days. It is especially important not to eat sweet foods when you feel stressed. See my low GL diet for how to do this.
  2. Learn how to maintain a state of balanced ‘calm’. (More on this below).
  3. Take exercise, which is a biochemical, physiological and psychological antidote to stress.

Of course, it’s easy to say ‘reduce your stress level’ but not so easy to do it – unless you know how. You might say your stresses are beyond your control – the mortgage, debts, family problems, and so on. Yet, some people seem to stay pretty calm most of the time, even when the pressure is on. How do they do this? Often we hear advice to meditate, practice yoga, breathe deeply, and so on, but when you are tired and stressed out these things are not easy to do. Before going into practical suggestions and introducing you to techniques that work, it’s worth understanding the chemistry and physiology of the different states of mind we move between.

The benefits of positivity

Doc Childre and Rollin McCraty, from the HeartMath Institute in California, have spent the last decade studying exactly what happens in the different emotional states we move between. We often associate the opposite of stress as relaxation – being in a calm, quiet state. But what Childre and McCraty discovered is that countering the unhealthy effects of stress is not just about calming down but about activating a positive emotional state. They looked at the emotions that deplete us and activate the stress hormone cortisol; and then they studied the emotions that revitalise us, by stimulating DHEA, the replenishing hormone that’s associated with enhanced well-being and slower rates of ageing.

Just as we take in food and transform it into energy, we transform positive emotions into buoyancy and resilience, so we become better able to cope with the difficult experiences we inevitably encounter. Positive emotions also put us into a state of what Childre and McCraty term as ‘coherence’, which relates to a pattern of synchronized activity across many body systems – your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and brainwaves. In this state, cortisol levels fall and DHEA levels rise. We could call it ‘internal global cooling’ because it actually helps to undo the ‘internal global warming’ that relates to metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and, ultimately, diabetes and heart disease.

Reduce your stress by becoming ‘coherent’

HeartMath teaches a simple technique that can be practiced daily to help you actively reduce the stress in your life. The premise of HeartMath is different from many other approaches for relieving stress, which typically focus on calming down after the stressful event has occurred; for example, by going for a massage or having a glass of wine after a difficult day at work. With HeartMath, you learn a simple breathing technique that can help you to ‘reset’ your physiological reaction to stress as the event occurs. To find out more about HeartMath – how it works and how to practice it see this report.

HeartMath and diabetes

Research into using HeartMath with people who have diabetes is particularly impressive. A small study at the HeartMath headquarters in Boulder Creek, California involved teaching a group of 22 participants with both type-1 and type-2 diabetes the HearthMath techniques and monitoring their progress. Six months after the workshop, participants reported significant reductions in anxiety, negative emotions, fatigue and sleeplessness, along with increased feelings of vitality and improved quality of life. Changes in glycosylated haemoglobin (HbA1c) were also observed, with increased HeartMath practice associated with a reduction in HbA1c levels.


Studies referred to in this article can be found in my book Say No to Diabetes.