Even before the pandemic and the presidential election, Americans reported some of the highest perceived levels of stress in the world, according to the American Psychological Association.
Not only does stress have negative effects on work and personal relationships, it also increases the risk of many chronic conditions, such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, and is associated with higher mortality rates.
In a new study, researchers found that eating a Mediterranean diet may provide a relatively easy way to help lessen the physiological effects of stress and promote healthy aging.
They measured the effects of long-term consumption of a Western versus Mediterranean diet on stress under controlled experimental conditions.
The research was conducted by a team at Wake Forest School of Medicine, part of Wake Forest Baptist Health.
It is very difficult to control or reduce stressors in daily life.
But scientists do know that people can control their diet, and previous studies have suggested that lower perceived stress is linked to high fruit and vegetable consumption.
Unfortunately, Americans consume a diet rich in animal protein and saturated fat, salt and sugar.
In the study, the team 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.
They studied the effects of the chronic stress of low social status and the acute stress of being socially isolated for 30 minutes in 38 middle-age animals that were fed either a Mediterranean or Western diet.
The diets were formulated to closely reflect human diets, with protein and fat derived largely from animal sources in the Western group and primarily from plant sources in the Mediterranean group.
To determine the diets’ effect on stress responses, the scientists measured changes in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and in the adrenal gland hormone cortisol, in response to acute and chronic stress.
Cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, helps the body access resources needed to fight or flee. However, if stress is continuous, cortisol levels stay high and damage tissues.
The team found compared to animals fed a Western diet, those fed the Mediterranean diet exhibited enhanced stress resilience as indicated by lower sympathetic nervous system and cortisol responses to stress, and more rapid recovery after the stress ended.
The findings showed that the Mediterranean diet shifted the balance toward the parasympathetic nervous system, which is good for health.
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 study suggests that population-wide adoption of a Mediterranean-like diet may provide a relatively simple and cost-effective intervention to reduce the negative impact of psychological stress on health and delay nervous system aging.
One author of the study is Carol A. Shively, Ph.D., a professor of pathology and comparative medicine.
The study is published in the journal Neurobiology of Stress.
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