Hormones play an important role in controlling how much glucose, or sugar, travels through your bloodstream to fuel your body's functions. While the hormone insulin is often discussed for its role in this process, another — called adrenaline — also affects your blood sugar. Feeling stressed?
What Is Adrenaline?
"It's what we call the 'fight or flight' hormone," says Deena Adimoolam, MD, an assistant professor of endocrinology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. "When your body is in a state of stress, you end up secreting this hormone called adrenaline, which is also known as epinephrine."
Adrenaline is produced in your adrenal glands, located on the tops of your kidneys, and in some types of nerve cells. When a stressful situation triggers adrenaline production, you may start to sweat, feel your heart racing or pounding and even be dizzy or lightheaded, according to the Endocrine Society. The goal of this physical response is to get your body ready to battle — or flee from — danger.
According to the Endocrine Society, this includes opening your air passages to help your muscles get needed oxygen, contracting your blood vessels to focus your blood supply on critical areas (such as your heart and lungs), reducing your ability to feel pain and boosting your strength and awareness. It also causes a release of glucose, which the Society for Endocrinology notes is primarily intended for your brain.
Read more: What Happens During an Adrenaline Rush?
Adrenaline and Blood Sugar Levels
Does adrenaline affect blood sugar levels? "Absolutely," says Robert H. Eckel, MD, president of Medicine & Science for the American Diabetes Association. He points out that adrenaline is associated with urgent situations, not long-term or chronic stress. "Epinephrine is an acute stress hormone," he says. "If, unfortunately, you have a bicycle accident or you fall in your home, epinephrine or adrenaline goes up quickly because it's an immediate fight-or-flight kind of reaction."
And if that accident takes you to a hospital emergency room, that's not the time for doctors to evaluate your blood sugar, he says, "because the fight-or-flight reaction, which involves multiple hormones but predominantly epinephrine, can make the glucose soar to very high levels." In this way, adrenaline causes hyperglycemia, another term for high blood sugar.
Downstream Effects on Blood Sugar
While adrenaline is a response to short-term stress, it can also trigger a process that leads your body to produce another stress-related hormone, called cortisol, according to Dr. Adimoolam. Cortisol, which Dr. Eckel notes is more associated with long-term stress, also raises blood sugar.
For people with diabetes, repeated increases in glucose caused by adrenaline and cortisol can make it harder to control their blood sugar.
"Some patients who are more insulin resistant, who have more chronic elevations of these hormones, may require higher insulin doses to manage their blood glucose," says Dr. Eckel. Insulin resistance is when your body produces insulin, but the cells in your body don't use it effectively to take in glucose and remove it from your blood, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Read more: What Does High Insulin Mean?
Dr. Adimoolam agrees: "I have a lot of patients who have Type 2 diabetes that, when they're under stress in their life, their sugars skyrocket."
In people who have prediabetes — or blood sugar that's above normal but not high enough to be considered diabetes — frequent exposure to stress-related hormones can increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. "What happens with excess cortisol, you actually have an increase in insulin resistance," says Dr. Adimoolam. "So, as a result, the blood sugar goes high because insulin is not able to do the job that it's supposed to."
She stresses that this applies only to people who are predisposed to developing Type 2 diabetes. If you don't already have a problem with glucose metabolism, she says, being under stress for a long period of time typically wouldn't increase your risk for developing diabetes.
Is This an Emergency?
- Deena Adimoolam, MD, assistant professor of medicine, endocrinology, diabetes and bone disease, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City
- Robert H. Eckel, MD, president of medicine and science, American Diabetes Association, Arlington, Virginia
- Endocrine Society: "What Is Adrenaline?"
- Society for Endocrinology: "Adrenaline"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Insulin Resistance and Prediabetes"