October 15


How Stress Creates Insulin Resistance

By Sunny Brigham, MS, CNS, LDN

October 15, 2018

minutes read time


Stress can be good or bad.  We need it at times.  But we need much less of it than we have right now.  Most people know that stress isn’t always good.  But what they don’t know is how stress can affect your insulin levels in the body.

Actually, the two are pretty closely related.  I’ve talked about stress a lot.  But I haven’t talked about insulin resistance.  In this blog, we’re going to take a quick look back at stress and cortisol’s effects in the body.  We’ll tie this all to insulin resistance.  And we’ll wrap up with some common symptoms of insulin resistance.

Stress and Cortisol 

At varying times throughout the day, the body can become stressed.  Sometimes we can feel this stress and other times we don’t.  We stress the body when we work out.  This is a good stress.  We’re stressing the body when we experience a lack of sleep.  We also stress the body when we overdo it on too much exercise, lack of sleep, and not taking care of ourselves.  This is called HPA axis dysregulation (I explain how stress wreaks havoc on the body).

Stress isn’t something we can get away from.  It’s all around us.  We’ve learned to function with the stress.  Some even function slightly better under pressure.  This is due to the stress hormones flowing through the body.  Regardless of our adaption to it or if we do better with it…it’s just not good for us.

Here are some simple techniques you can do to help reduce the impact cortisol has on the body.  Of the 3 primary stress hormones, cortisol can cause the most damage.  It can also cause insulin resistance.

What is Insulin?

Insulin resistance is something many associate with diabetics.  But did you know that many actually have insulin resistance and don’t have diabetes?  It’s not isolated to diabetics.  It can happen to anyone.

Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas.  In the presence of sugar in the blood (glucose), the pancreas releases the insulin.  Insulin helps reduce the amount of sugar in the blood by shuttling it into cells in the liver, muscles, and a few other places.  We then convert it stored energy for use later when we need it…like during times of stress.

Stress and Insulin

Cortisol tells the body to release all these stores in case we’re outrunning a lion.  Most times when we are stressed, we are sitting in traffic or at our desks.  So…not running.  This released energy, if unused, is stored as fat.

But when cortisol is released, it also tells the pancreas to not release any insulin.  It shuts down the function for a bit until the stressor is over.  It does this because insulin’s main function is to shuttle sugar into cells.  But cortisol just released it all so we don’t want it stored yet…you know…lions and stuff.

But what if we are in a constant state of stress?  What if from sun up to sun down our brain and body is going a hundred miles a minute?  What happens then?

We create insulin resistance in the body.  If we have a constant state of cortisol in the body, we have elevated blood sugar levels.  If we constantly shut down the pancreas’s use throughout the day, the body might forget what to do with it.  The exact mechanisms of this are unknown.  But what is known is there is a direct link between excess cortisol and insulin resistance.

Stress comes with a myriad of health issues.  Insulin resistance is only one of them.  This is one of the main reasons I talk about stress and stress reduction with my clients.

Symptoms of Insulin Resistance

Many will have insulin resistance without having pre-diabetes or even full-blown diabetes.  Many carry the symptoms and brush it off as other issues or relate it to something else entirely.  The most common symptoms I see are:

Elevated triglycerides


Excessive thirst

Hungry even though you just finished eating

Craving carbs

Needing a sweet treat or coffee in the afternoon

Feeling a slump in energy between 2 and 5 pm

Large abdomen (35” or more for women; 40” or more for men)

Feeling “hangry”


Weight gain

Inability to lose weight

You don’t need all these symptoms to have insulin resistance.  You only need a few.  Some of my clients I can tell right away they have insulin resistance.  Others require a little digging.

But it can be fixed!

How to Fix It

Generally, eating healthier, working out more, and reducing stress can do the trick.  But that’s much easier said than done.  I like to start a little in each area.  Perhaps adding in a few servings of veg a day, going for a 10-minute walk each night, and doing 5 minutes of meditation before bed.

From there, I like to expand it.  But for many, supplements such as fish oil, chromium, or inositol may be in order.  It’s really client dependent.  No two treatment plans are alike.

Do you suspect you have insulin resistance?  If so, what it one thing you’re going to commit to working on over the next week?

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