Diabetes management is challenging enough as it is. It takes a daily and consistent effort, around the clock, to check your blood sugar levels, pay close attention to your diet and a multitude of other variables, all while making medication adjustments to stay in your target range. The constant management tasks already take a substantial amount of effort and headspace. It’s no wonder that when a particularly high-stress situation arises, it can make diabetes management especially tricky.
Right now, we are all living through a very stressful time, globally. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we are all doing our part in trying to slow the spread of the infection. Between school and university closings, bars and restaurants and stores being shut down, and the constant effort of social distancing, the changes to our daily routines are paramount. Not being able to go to the gym, socialize as we are used to, and the added stresses of childcare, not to mention unemployment concerns, are skyrocketing our stress levels.
We know that stress levels can cause higher than normal blood glucose levels. As a result, many of us may be struggling with our diabetes management more than usual.
Jennifer Smith RD, LD, CDCES, Director of Lifestyle and Nutrition and Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist at Integrated Diabetes Services explains:
“Stress comes in all forms and can effect each person a bit differently. Stress at work, from a presentation, a big project for school, studying, a terrifying experience like a car accident, a big game against the top opposing team, a performance in gymnastics, or even a scary movie – these can stimulate the “fight or flight” response in the body. The main hormones that are released in a time of stress are adrenaline and cortisol. The release of these hormones encourages the liver to dump glucose into the blood stream in order to provide a quick supply of energy to “get out of the situation”…our body still responds to stress as if we were running away from a Saber tooth tiger ages ago. This extra glucose can and will raise blood glucose levels. It won’t be the same for each person and different types of stress will cause a different rise in blood glucose, but this is the main reason for the typical rise from stress.”
In these unprecedented times, it is perhaps more than ever important to continue to care for our physical and mental health, and in particular, our diabetes. Optimizing our blood glucose levels can help promote optimal immune system function, which helps us fight off all kinds of infections more effectively. Also, keeping blood glucose levels in range as much as possible can go a long way in helping us to feel our best on a day to day basis, physically and mentally.
Here are some tips for optimizing our diabetes self-care during these high-stress times.
Check Your Basal Insulin Dose
For the many of us who are on a basal/bolus insulin regimen, whether using a pump or multiple daily injections, basal insulin doses (or rates) are the cornerstone of blood glucose management. If the basal insulin dose is too high, we might find ourselves with unexpectedly low blood sugar levels throughout the day or night, while if the dose is too low, we may be constantly chasing higher than desired blood sugar levels.
Jennifer Smith RD, LD, CDCES, explains:
“This the foundation of your diabetes management. Think of it like the foundation of a house – if you build it sturdy and strong then everything placed on top of it will hold stable. If you have a foundation that has holes in it, or it put together with shoddy materials, you are like to have to patch and fix it along with everything you build on top of it or it will all fall apart. Basal insulin is what we use to manage blood glucose without food in the picture. In a body without diabetes there is a fine coordination between insulin released by the pancreas in the fasting state and the livers release of glucose into the blood stream to maintain normal glucose levels. This happens whether or not there is food eaten. Getting the basal rates tested is the baseline of management to ensure that if you skip a meal, or for overnight when you aren’t eating, glucose levels stay stable without falling or rising more than 30mg/dl (1.6mmol). Having this set well will ensure that the bolus insulin you take to cover food or to correct blood glucose when it is too high is working optimally. It may need to be adjusted as you move through life, as hormones for growth, menstruation, stress and illness can change insulin needs. But, if you have your base basal set well, then adjusting for these variables is a bit easier to navigate.”
For most people, stress tends to increase insulin resistance, resulting in higher blood glucose levels. This means that many need more insulin during times of stress to stay in range. However, your response to stress may vary, so it is important to carry out basal testing to determine if your dose is appropriately set.
Below, you can find a previously published description of how to determine if your basal insulin doses or rates are working well for you. Once that cornerstone of insulin therapy is properly set, it will be much easier to troubleshoot other areas, like bolus and exercise adjustments. (*Note: always consult with your healthcare provider prior to making any changes to your medication doses).
To determine if the basal insulin dose is set correctly, one can fast for a specific number of hours without bolus (fast-acting) insulin onboard and monitor blood glucose levels to see if they remain steady. Importantly, the test should be performed in the absence of other complicating variables, like exercise, stress, or illness. The test should not be performed if your blood glucose level is low or high.
Many people prefer to perform basal testing in 8-12-hour spurts, so as not to fast for an entire 24 hours. For example, it can be quite easy to check the overnight basal dose by not eating after 6 pm and assessing the blood glucose trend from 10 pm to 6 am (in the absence of food or bolus insulin). To determine the basal dose efficacy for morning or evening hours, one would skip a meal and monitor blood glucose levels to determine whether the basal dose is well-set.
The basal insulin requirement may be very similar throughout the day, or it may vary. In particular, many individuals experience “dawn phenomenon,” whereby hormones stimulate glucose release by the liver in the early morning hours. When using an insulin pump, it is quite easy to adjust the basal insulin rate of delivery to accommodate any variations. For those on insulin injection therapy, it may be worthwhile to split the basal insulin injections into several doses throughout the day, to best match the requirements. These individuals may also benefit from taking a small amount of short-acting insulin upon waking to account for dawn phenomenon.
Accurate basal insulin dosing is the first step to achieve the best blood glucose control possible. Once the optimal doses or rates are determined, one should not need to worry about hyper- or hypoglycemia in the absence of food or other variables (like exercise). This will make it a lot easier to systematically start addressing other variables that affect blood glucose levels.
It may be easier said than done, but there are several, proven ways that we can reduce our stress levels. Whether it’s taking ten minutes to meditate every morning, making sure you get your exercise in, or connecting with loved ones through phone or video chats, taking time to care for our physical and emotional health can in itself help us to de-stress. In turn, our blood sugar levels will (hopefully) become more predictable and easier to manage. Check out some of these articles to help you get started:
Mindfulness and Meditation Apps
Staying Active at Home
Taking Care of Your Mental Health
And, as the weather finally improves for many of us, don’t forget about the benefits of time spent in nature. Between the vitamin D exposure and the exercise, you can gain a boost for your immune system and mental state by making it a priority to get outdoors as much as possible.
Create (and Stick to) a Routine
Maintaining some degree of normalcy by having a regular schedule can help us feel more in control and help keep us on track when it comes to our meal planning and exercise goals, which in turn, can have a tremendously positive effect on our diabetes management. A routine can be especially helpful when we find ourselves in a rut or experiencing burnout.
For example, if you’re struggling to check your blood sugar level on a regular basis, you can make a concrete plan of when exactly you will check each day. Next, keep yourself accountable by setting an alarm to do so. Moreover, consider trying out a diabetes management app, to help you stay on track.
If you find that your diet has suffered, try to plan your meals ahead for the week. Focus on nutrient-dense foods and get your family involved. Try out a new vegetable recipe or even a low-carb desert! Similarly, with exercise consider engaging all together at a set time, at least a few times per week.
Make Use of Technology
We are so fortunate to have the advanced technology we have today, diabetes-related and not. If you have found yourself in a rut, not wearing your continuous glucose monitor (CGM), or not utilizing the features on your insulin pump to their fullest extent, this is a great time to lean into the technology that can help us thrive during these difficult times.
Moreover, we can data share with our healthcare providers, providing them with detailed information about what’s working and what’s not. Ask your healthcare providers about telehealth appointments, if you haven’t yet!
On another note, just using video conferencing to keep up with family and friends, or even just chatting about diabetes in a forum, is a gift that did not exist even 50 years ago! Making use of the internet to strengthen existing connections and make new ones is critical to our emotional health during these times, and can even help with diabetes management and emotional support.
Lean On Others
If you need help, reach out. If you are having a bad day, reach out to a friend for support. If you’re struggling with your diabetes management, reach out to the online community, as well as your diabetes provider. Don’t underestimate the power of social support, as well as having another pair of eyes to review your data to help you identify where you can make some changes to get back on track.
We may be socially distancing, but we are not alone! Lean into your community and make use of your provider’s expertise, remotely.
Also, be aware of the following mental health hotlines and be sure to share them with anyone who may benefit:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Counselor Hotline: Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a counselor
Also, you can visit this website for hotlines that are tailored to more specific mental health issues.
How has your diabetes management been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? What are you doing to stay healthy? Please share your experiences with us in the comments below.
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Read more about continuous glucose monitor (CGM), COVID-19, dawn phenomenon, diabetes burnout, diabetes management, exercise, insulin, insulin pumps, Intensive management, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), low-carb diet, telehealth.