Researchers in the U.S. found that the Mediterranean diet can play a significant role in coping with stress compared to a diet containing more animal protein and saturated fat.
Stress is a major concern for virtually everyone, having a negative impact on behavior, personal relationships and productivity. Even worse, chronic stress is linked to higher rates of mortality as it can lead to severe health risks, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity and heart disease.
Researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in the United States conducted a study on animals to examine whether long-term consumption of a specific diet can help in the control of stressful situations and eventually reduce the detrimental effects of stress.
Our study showed that the Mediterranean diet shifted the balance toward the parasympathetic nervous system, which is good for health.
A correlation between stress and eating habits had previously been defined through observational studies. The Wake Forest study was the first long-lasting preclinical study to examine the stress-related effects of different dietary patterns in a controlled environment.
“It is very difficult to control or reduce stressors in our lives,” Carol Shively, the lead researcher of the study, said. “But we do know that we can control our diet, and previous observational studies have suggested that lower perceived stress is associated with high fruit and vegetable consumption.”
The researchers applied two different types of diet on middle-aged animals for a time period of 31 months (equivalent to nine human years). The diets applied were meticulously constructed to resemble human diets, one Western-like rich in animal protein and saturated fats and another Mediterranean-like mostly based on plant protein and fruits.
During the study, the researchers monitored the variations of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems of the animals, which regulate body functions when in stress, as well as their adrenal gland cortisol, the main stress hormone that operates like an alarm system of the body under stressful circumstances.
The research results, published in the Neurobiology of Stress online journal, showed that the animals on the Mediterranean-like diet had the ability to better cope with stress and could also recover more easily from prolonged stressful situations compared to the animals on the Western-like diet. In advance, the aging of the animals’ sympathetic nervous system was slowed down by the Med-style diet.
“Our study showed that the Mediterranean diet shifted the balance toward the parasympathetic nervous system, which is good for health,” Shively said. “By contrast, the Western diet increased the sympathetic response to stress, which is like having the panic button on all the time – and that isn’t healthy.”
The researchers noted that adherence to the Mediterranean diet can reduce the adverse effects of stress on health, especially in populations such as the Americans, who have reported some of the highest levels of perceived stress worldwide.
“Unfortunately, Americans consume a diet rich in animal protein and saturated fat, salt and sugar, so we wanted to find out if that diet worsened the body’s response to stress compared to a Mediterranean diet, in which much of the protein and fat come from plant sources,” the researchers said.
“Our findings suggest that population-wide adoption of a Mediterranean-like diet pattern may provide a cost-effective intervention on psychological stress and promote healthy aging with the potential for widespread efficacy.”