It’s well known that a stress-filled lifestyle can lead to high blood pressure, insomnia and a host of other chronic health issues. Now, you can add type 2 diabetes to that list.
Past studies have partly linked stress with the onset of diabetes, but the mechanisms behind why this happens were poorly understood. In a new study, researchers provide evidence of a direct link between psychological stress and biological dysfunction.
People who are constantly stressed have a high allostatic load, which is the physical wear and tear caused by our bodies’ natural stress response. People with high stress loads have trouble reacting to and recovering from stressful events because their bodies’ natural stress-balancing processes are disrupted.
To test the link between diabetes and stress, researchers recruited people with type 2 diabetes to see if they were also living with high allostatic loads. Researchers compared a group of 140 men and women with diabetes to a control group of 280 non-diabetic individuals. Each person took two mental stress tests and researchers took blood and saliva samples before and after the tests. Participants took additional saliva samples at home to measure the amount of cortisol — the stress hormone — they produced each day. Lastly, they completed a psychological examination to establish their chronic stress levels.
When researchers analyzed that data they found that people with type 2 diabetes had higher levels of cortisol and of interleukin-6, a blood molecule that’s linked to inflammation. Diabetics also coped with the stress test less well, showing heightened blood pressure and heart rates for a longer period of time afterward. Finally, diabetics exhibited more hostile and depressive attitudes, according to psychological tests. Researchers published their results today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers believe their evidence makes a compelling case to link the onset of diabetes with stress. And there’s a putative mechanism there in the form of inflammation, which is both produced by chronic stress and is one of the early signs of diabetes.
But the direction of causality isn’t settled yet. It could be that having the disease causes these changes in how people cope with stress. Regardless, the results indicate that stress is a good place for more research. Stress loads are high among people with diabetes, and understanding the interaction between stress and the body could improve care, and hopefully peace of mind as well.
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