Against stress? A help comes from diet, although it may seem strange. But not just any diet, we are speaking about the Mediterranean Diet, rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, extra virgin olive oil, with a moderate amount of fish, a low intake of red meat and a few sweets. Numerous studies have been dedicated to the benefits of a nutrition based on the Mediterranean diet to prevent diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, but also cancer and Alzheimer's. Exactly ten years after the Mediterranean Diet was declared a World Intangible Heritage by Unesco, it was in fact November 16, 2010, a new scientific research has also revealed another role of this type of diet, namely its ability to make the body stronger in case of stressful situations (Shively et al, Neurobiology of Stress, Nov 2020).
We are called every day to deal with stress, especially in this pandemic period in which we all find ourselves having different concerns. Chronic stress can worsen work performance and lifestyle but can also cause heart disease and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. We cannot eliminate the problems that cause stress but we can act with lifestyle to allow our body to better deal with these situations. In addition to yoga and meditation, a contribution comes from the diet, especially if you follow the Mediterranean Diet. The researchers studied a population of 38 macaques, animals very similar to humans. The macaques were divided into two groups. To the first group was given a diet similar to the Western human diet with proteins and fats of animal origin, while the second group ate a diet capable of mimicking the Mediterranean diet with proteins and fats mainly of vegetable origin. The study lasted 31 months, which corresponds to about 9 human years, during which the macaques experienced moments of stress caused by isolation for 30 minutes each time. When finished, the scientists measured any differences in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and cortisol levels. These parameters are important as they allow us to understand the body's response to stress. The sympathetic nervous system, in fact, is involved in the “fight or flight” reaction in front of a danger and controls the heartbeat and pressure. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, has the function of bringing the body back to a state of calm. Cortisol is the main stress hormone in the body and helps the body access all the resources it needs to save itself, so fight or flee. Too high levels of cortisol for too long periods of time can damage tissues. Well, macaques that had been fed the Mediterranean diet exhibited greater resilience to stress, indicated by a lower stress response from both the sympathetic nervous system and cortisol. Not only that, in the group that followed the Mediterranean Diet, a greater ability to recover after stress was also observed.
Eating a diet rich in animal proteins and fats, as is the Western-style diet, is like always living with the "panic" button pressed and this can be harmful in the long run. On the contrary, the Mediterranean diet favors the prevalence of the parasympathetic nervous system which is instead more beneficial for health.