MedDiet Better for Stress Management, Study Finds

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.
By Costas Vasilopoulos
Dec. 2, 2020 08:22 UTC

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.- Carol Shively, lead researcher

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.”

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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.”


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