When you think about ways to prevent diabetes, you probably don’t think about stress. But as it turns out, a particular type of stress can increase the odds of developing type 2 diabetes quite significantly.
The news comes from a long-term study conducted in Sweden that began back in 1970. The results may surprise you…
Study participants included about 7,000 men who, at the time, were 47 to 56 years old and free of any history of diabetes, heart disease or stroke. These men completed questionnaires that asked, among other things, about their stress levels. Stress was defined as “feeling tense, irritable or filled with anxiety, or having sleeping difficulties as a result of conditions at work or at home.” Nearly 16% of the men reported that they had been feeling “permanent” stress, meaning that it had been ongoing for one to five years or more.
Fast-forward 35 years: By searching through national death records and hospital discharge reports, the researchers determined that, over the following three-and-a-half decades, 899 of the study participants were diagnosed at some point with type 2 diabetes. Next, the researchers analyzed the data, adjusting for other factors that influence diabetes risk, such as physical activity level, body mass index, high blood pressure and age.
Findings: Men who had reported feeling ongoing stress at the start of the study had a 45% higher probability of developing diabetes, compared with men who had not had ongoing stress. Interestingly, there was hardly any difference in diabetes risk between the men who had reported periodic stress and those who had reported little or no stress.
THE STRESS CONNECTION
There are several reasons why stress could contribute to diabetes risk. One is that increased levels of the hormone cortisol, which the body produces in response to stress, may prevent insulin from efficiently removing glucose from the blood. Another is that cortisol may promote the development of belly fat, which is a known risk factor for diabetes. Also, when we’re under stress, our bodies produce cytokines, which are proteins that promote inflammation—and evidence suggests that inflammation caused by cytokines is closely involved in the development of type 2 diabetes.
Does ongoing stress also increase diabetes risk in women? Further research is needed to answer that question, but the mechanisms described above are likely to apply to women as well.
Self-defense: Of course, it’s not easy to completely eliminate stress from your work or home life (in fact, it’s hard to imagine that there are people in the world who experience no stress at all). Still, there are many helpful steps you can take to keep stress from becoming the kind of permanent, endless presence that seems to have given those unfortunate Swedes diabetes. Exercise is known to relieve stress…certain nutrients can reduce stress…and meditation helps, too, by limiting stress-induced inflammation and restoring cortisol levels to more normal levels. For dozens of powerful, specific stress-busting strategies, check out our Bottom Line Guide to Stress Relief. What if you still feel stressed much of the time despite your best efforts to reduce stress? Be especially sure to reduce your other risk factors for diabetes by eating a healthful diet, staying physically active and keeping your weight and blood pressure under control.