Stress can increase the risk of insulin resistance. Here’s what the experts say might help

You know what it feels like when your stress builds up. It is a physical and emotional response. Your palms sweat before a big presentation. Your heart is pounding when you are about to get into a car accident. When you get a phone call with bad news, you might hold your breath.

We all experience stress, and being stressed is a natural and vital reaction. Stress releases hormones like cortisol that trigger the fight-or-flight response, pushing you to take action when necessary. When the threat is over, those overwhelmed feelings will subside and you’ll be back to normal.

However, long-term chronic stress can lead to a variety of health conditions, including insulin resistance. And that’s a problem. Learn more about the connection between high stress levels and insulin resistance and expert-backed ways to manage stress.

What is insulin resistance?

Insulin is a hormone produced by the beta cells of the pancreas. Its main function is to carry sugar (glucose) from the bloodstream into the cells for energy. Insulin also packs extra glucose into glycogen for storage for later use.

Insulin resistance is a condition in which muscle, fat and liver cells do not respond well to insulin. As a result, they cannot absorb glucose from the blood. Over time, insulin resistance can lead to high blood sugar levels, eventually resulting in prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, says Maria Elena Pena, MD, an endocrinologist at Catholic Health. This can also increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, he explains.

Cells can start to push back against insulin for a number of reasons. Genetics, age, lifestyle (such as inactivity and diet), weight, and stress can all play a role. In response to insulin resistance, the body compensates by producing more insulin. Higher insulin levels can help push sugar into cells, but that doesn’t last forever.

Over the years, the pancreas can become sluggish and stop producing as much insulin. When this happens, blood sugar begins to rise to abnormal levels leading to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance can also promote the accumulation of fat in the liver, leading to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease ( NAFLD).

What is the relationship between stress and insulin resistance?

Stress itself is not a problem, it is chronic or constant and persistent stress that does not go away. Elevated cortisol levels over time can disrupt the body’s glucose metabolism by increasing inflammation, which in turn raises blood sugar levels and promotes insulin resistance, Pena says. He adds that high cortisol can also impair sleep, change hunger hormones, and promote the gradual accumulation of visceral (abdominal) fat that contributes to insulin resistance.

Unfortunately, these changes set the stage for a dysregulated metabolism, says Lauren Plunkett, RDN, a board-certified diabetes care and education specialist and a person living with type 1 diabetes. Over the long term, this can progress to cardiovascular disease. , obesity and elevated fasting glucose levels as a result of insulin resistance, he says.

How to manage stress and prevent insulin resistance

You can’t avoid all stress (and you shouldn’t try!), but finding strategies to reduce it and learning how to respond to it can better equip you to recover from stressful situations. Lifestyle changes can make a big difference in your resilience to stress. Here’s where to start:

Eat more plants

A plant-based diet can help reduce stress through what’s called the psychobiotic effect, in which bacteria in the gut influence brain function and mood. Plants are also rich in fiber, an indigestible carbohydrate, which promotes gut health and helps reduce insulin resistance by slowing the rate at which food is metabolized, stabilizing blood sugar and promoting satiety .

Get moving

Regular physical activity is beneficial for reducing stress and preventing insulin resistance. Exercise is an opportunity to disconnect from everyday stressors. It also has positive effects on the brain and body and is known to help reduce insulin resistance by making cells more sensitive to insulin. Walking, a free and accessible form of exercise, is a good place to start. Consider setting a timer on your watch to take a quick, brisk walk to clear your mind, improve your mood, and lower your blood sugar.

Prioritize sleep

Increased stress levels can affect sleep, and poor sleep quality or insufficient sleep can increase insulin resistance. Therefore, getting an adequate amount of sleep is essential. If you’re not getting enough sleep, evaluating your routine can help. You can benefit from freshening your room, avoiding screens 1 hour before bed or eliminating afternoon coffee.

Find your relaxation strategy

Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation can help you better react to and manage your emotions and thoughts, including those that cause stress. Deep breathing can be a good place to start as it can be done anywhere and anytime.

Other mind-body practices that have been shown to help relieve stress include prayer, meditation, yoga, tai chi, and mindfulness techniques. These activities can make you feel less stressed. They help lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, improve cognitive function and reduce insulin resistance.

The bottom line

Stress is a risk factor for insulin resistance, as elevated levels of stress hormones can alter glucose metabolism. To reduce stress and prevent insulin resistance, consider evaluating your lifestyle. Examine your diet, physical activity level, sleep patterns and mindfulness practices. Start by making small changes that you like and trust that you can stick with them and build from there.

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