Stress May Increase Your Risk of Insulin Resistance—Here's What Health Experts Say Can Help

Plus, calm-down strategies to start today.

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You know what it feels like to have your stress spike. It’s an emotional and physical response. Your palms sweat before a big presentation. Your heart pounds when you nearly get into a car accident. When you get a bad-news phone call, you may hold your breath.

We all experience stress, and being stressed is a natural and vital reaction. Stress releases hormones like cortisol that produce the "fight or flight" response, pushing you to take action when needed. When the threat is over, those keyed-up feelings subside, and you return to normal. 

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

What Is Insulin Resistance?

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas's beta cells. Its primary role is to carry sugar (glucose) from the bloodstream to cells for energy. Insulin also packages extra glucose as glycogen to store for later use. 

Insulin resistance is a condition in which cells in your muscles, fat and liver do not respond well to insulin. As a result, they cannot take up glucose from your blood. “Over time, insulin resistance can lead to elevated blood sugar levels, eventually resulting in prediabetes or type 2 diabetes,” says Maria Elena Pena, M.D., an endocrinologist at Catholic Health. This can also increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol, she explains. 

Cells can start to push back against insulin for a variety of reasons. Genetics, age, lifestyle (like inactivity and diet), weight and stress can play a role. In response to insulin resistance, the body compensates by churning out more insulin. Higher insulin levels can help push sugar into cells—but this doesn’t last forever.

As years go by, the pancreas can become sluggish and stop making as much insulin. When this happens, blood sugar begins to rise to abnormal levels—resulting in prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance can also promote fat accumulation in the liver, leading to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

What Is the Link Between Stress and Insulin Resistance? 

Stress itself is not a problem. The problem is when it's chronic or constant, lingering stress that doesn’t go away. “Elevated levels of cortisol over time can disrupt the body's glucose metabolism by increasing inflammation, which in turn increases blood sugar levels and promotes insulin resistance,” says Pena. She 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 certified diabetes care and education specialist and a person living with type 1 diabetes. “Long term, this can progress to cardiovascular disease, obesity and elevated fasting glucose levels as a result of insulin resistance,” she says.

How to Manage Stress and Prevent Insulin Resistance 

Not all stress can be avoided (nor should you 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 against stress. Here’s where to begin.

Eat More Plants 

A plant-based diet may 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 down how quickly food is metabolized, stabilizing blood sugar and promoting feelings of satiety.

Get Moving

Regular physical activity is beneficial for reducing stress and preventing insulin resistance. Exercise is an opportunity to tune out 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 great place to start. Consider setting a timer on your watch for a quick, brisk walk to clear your mind, improve your mood and lower your blood sugar.

Prioritize Sleep

Increased stress levels can impact sleep, and poor sleep quality or insufficient sleep can increase insulin resistance. Therefore, getting adequate amounts of sleep is essential. If you are not getting enough sleep, assessing your routine may help. You may benefit from cooling down your room, avoiding screens for one hour before bedtime or eliminating your afternoon coffee. 

Find Your Go-To Relaxation Strategy

Relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation can help you better react to and manage your emotions and thoughts, including those that cause stress. Deep breathing might be a good place to start since 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 slow your heart rate, lower blood pressure, reduce cortisol levels, improve cognitive function and reduce insulin resistance.

The Bottom Line 

Stress is a risk factor for insulin resistance, as high levels of stress hormones can disrupt 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 you find enjoyable and are confident you can stick with, and build from there.

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  2. American Diabetes Association. Understanding Insulin Resistance.

  3. Baban KA, Morton DP. Lifestyle Medicine and Stress Management. J Fam Pract. 2022;71(Suppl 1 Lifestyle):S24-S29. doi:10.12788/jfp.0285

  4. Weickert MO, Pfeiffer AFH. Impact of Dietary Fiber Consumption on Insulin Resistance and the Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes. J Nutr. 2018 Jan 1;148(1):7-12. doi:10.1093/jn/nxx008

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep for a Good Cause.

  6. MedlinePlus. Relaxation techniques for stress.

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