Mediterranean diet may be a surprising way to deal with stress

The Mediterranean diet may be a surprising way to reduce stress and improve your wellbeing, according to a new study from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. This is the first preclinical trial to evaluate the long-term effects of Mediterranean and Western diets on stress using controlled conditions, according to the researchers, who used animals fed specially formulated diets for this work.

The study involved 38 animals split into groups, including ones given diets formulated to 'closely reflect' the diets eaten by humans — of both the 'Western' and Mediterranean varieties. The animals were isolated for 30 minutes to evaluate their stress response.

The evaluation included monitoring their cortisol hormone response and changes in their nervous systems — one that helps keep the body calmer and one that triggers the 'fight or flight' response. Chronically high cortisol levels can damage the body and spending too much time in a 'fight or flight' mode can have its own health impacts.

The researchers found that animals fed the Mediterranean-formulated diet were more resilient to stress compared to the animals that were fed a Western-formulated diet. As well, the Mediterranean group were able to 'rapidly recover' from the stressful isolation, the study notes.

The Western diet is described as one that focuses on animal proteins, fat, salt, and sugar. The Mediterranean diet, however, focuses on plant foods like fruit, vegetables, and nuts, as well as lean meats like fish and healthy fats like olive oil. Many past studies have linked the Mediterranean diet with protective effects on heart health and more.