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The Mediterranean Diet May Calm The Stress Response, Research Finds

Mediterranean diet with salmon, herbs and vegetables
Image by LIOR + LONE / Stocksy
November 17, 2020

When we're dealing with a lot of stress, it's extra tempting to reach for the sweets and carbs. Unfortunately, we now know that these comfort foods can make our mood worse1 and heighten depressive feelings. As for the feel-good foods that can ease stress? Scientists and nutrition experts are still looking into it, but a recent animal study found that a Mediterranean diet—rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and omega-3-rich proteins—might be beneficial for mental health2. Let's dig into this new research.

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Studying the connection between diet and stress.

For the study, researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine looked at the acute and chronic stress levels of 38 macaque monkeys over the course of 31 months (about nine human years). Some of the omnivorous primates were fed a Western diet high in animal fat, salt, and sugar, while the rest were fed a Mediterranean diet.

By exposing the monkeys to different stressors, such as being isolated for 30 minutes, the researchers were able to measure their levels of cortisol—aka the "stress hormone"—as well as changes to their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. They also looked at how the primates' sympathetic nervous system (responsible for fight-or-flight reflexes) aged based on diet over the course of the study.

In times of chronic stress, high cortisol levels can cause a myriad of issues, such as inflammation and high blood pressure. Similarly, when the sympathetic nervous system is overstimulated or can't regulate properly, the body is essentially stuck in a constant state of panic. (The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, helps calm the body down.)

What this study found, and why it's potentially significant.

The monkeys in this research fared far better at dealing with stress when they were eating a Mediterranean diet. Namely, they weren't as affected by stressors, and afterward, they recovered faster than those on a Western diet.

"Our study showed that the Mediterranean diet shifted the balance toward the parasympathetic nervous system, which is good for health," notes professor and study co-author, Carol Shively, Ph.D., in a news release. "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."

Additionally, the study authors note those monkeys eating a Mediterranean diet exhibited slowed aging of the sympathetic nervous system compared to those eating a Western diet.

Doing this research on monkeys as opposed to humans made it possible to study the mental health effects of the diet over long periods of time. It also made it easier to regulate what the subjects were eating. Of course, the findings can't be directly applied to humans, but Shively says that they could still have "significant implications for human health."

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The takeaway.

"It is very difficult to control or reduce stressors in our lives, but we do know that we can control our diet," Shively says.

While follow-up research needs to be done on actual humans, this study shows that eating a Mediterranean diet, characterized by lots of vegetables, healthy fat, and lean protein like seafood, might be an effective approach for combating stress—and keeping the nervous system healthy as we age.

Two things are definitely clear: Chronic stress is bad for our health, and what we put in our bodies makes a difference.

So the next time you're stressed, put this research to the test and pass up on the sugar, carbs, and red meat in favor of a whole-food, Mediterranean-inspired snack like white bean hummus, chickpea salad, or a cherry-almond smoothie. Pair it up with other stress-reducers like a hemp supplement, caffeine-free tea, and/or a calming breathwork session, and feel those shoulders drop and your mind start to quiet.

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