UCL News


People with diabetes are less able to regulate the body's responses to stress

22 October 2014

People with type 2 diabetes are physically less able to recover from stress, finds a study by scientists at UCL and the University of Zurich, funded by the British Heart Foundation.


These findings could lead to new approaches in the prevention and treatment of diabetes, targeting the wide number of biological changes that take place as a result of the disease.

There are 3.2 million adults in the UK diagnosed with diabetes, 90% of whom have type 2 diabetes. It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands more living with undiagnosed type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is on the rise in the UK and diabetes increases a person's risk of developing coronary heart disease or having a stroke.

The research study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, compared 420 adults, between 50 and 75 years old, matching participants' age, gender and income and found that those with diabetes were less able to bring their blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol levels back to normal after a stressful test.

The participants with type 2 diabetes also exhibited higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood, alongside higher levels of a protein involved in the immune response, called IL-6. A combination of all these factors could lead to increased strain on the body as it tries to maintain a stable internal environment.

Exploring exactly how stress affects the body at this level is a step towards identifying better ways of managing people's risk of diabetes

Professor Andrew Steptoe

The study shows a link between the biological processes involved in stress and type 2 diabetes. The results do not demonstrate that extra strain on the body from stress is either a cause or consequence of type 2 diabetes, but highlight the potential of treatments that target both the psychological and physical effects of illness.

Professor Andrew Steptoe, BHF Professor of Psychology and Director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at UCL, lead researcher on the study said: "Our study is the first to link psychological stress with the underlying biology, and show that there is a difference in the biological response to stress of people who have diabetes and those who don't.

"Exploring exactly how stress affects the body at this level is a step towards identifying better ways of managing people's risk of diabetes"

Dr Sanjay Thakrar, Research Adviser at the BHF, which funded the study, said: "Diabetes is a known risk factor for coronary heart disease, but the role of stress is less defined. This study highlights the need for a multi-faceted approach to treating diabetes.

"People cope with stress in many different ways. Notably, a balanced diet and regular physical activity will not only help you deal with stress, but also improve your heart health."



  • Stress (courtesy of bottled_void on Flickr)