Researchers think switching up your diet may be a cost-effective way to boost mental health.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
November 17, 2020
Advertisement

2020 has been an exceptionally stressful year for many of us. And while you may know that stress isn't good, it can actually have some pretty serious consequences for your health. Stress could be the reason you're not losing weight, impact your ability to focus and can increase your risk of chronic diseases, like heart disease. While there are certain things you can do to reduce stress in your life, like exercising or going outside, some of the foods we eat impacts our stress levels as well. Not only is the Mediterannean diet consistenly named the healthiest diet, but it might also help you kick stress to the curb. Here's what the science says about the Mediterranean diet and stress.

What the Science Says

New animal research in Neurobiology of Stress found that following a Mediterranean diet may help tone down stress and promote healthy aging. Stress can manifest itself in many forms, and can be hard to measure. For this study, they focused on the nervous system and the hormone cortisol. There are two categories of nervous systems in our bodies: parasympathetic and sympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the "fight or flight" response we experience from feelings of stress or danger. Cortisol is one of the hormones that helps our bodies access the resources we need during a "fight or flight" response and is our body's main stress hormone. However, if stress is persistent and cortisol stays at high levels for extended periods of time, it can damage our tissues.

On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for keeping us in a calmer state where lower levels of cortisol were present. Researchers found that long-term consumption of a Mediterranean diet reduced cortisol levels and promoted the use of the parasympathetic nervous system, so animals recovered from stress more quickly. Though this study was conducted in animals, it suggests that following a Mediterranean diet could be a cost-effective way to reduce the psychological effects of stress in humans too.

Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet has been named the healthiest diet by U.S. News & World Report for the last three years, and there is reason for the hype. Beyond helping lower stress, there are several health benefits associated with following the Mediterranean diet. The focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats seems to be the winning formula for better health. It has been shown to improve heart health and lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and can also keep your brain functioning at its best. There are even weight-loss benefits from following a Mediterranean diet, likely from the combination of fiber, protein and nutrient-dense foods.

Ways to Follow a Mediterranean Diet for Lower Stress

There are also some specific foods in the Mediterranean diet that have been linked to lower stress levels. Nuts are packed with B vitamins and potassium, two nutrients that help lower blood pressure and stress. Vegetables including bell peppers and leafy greens are packed with vitamin C and magnesium which help lower inflammation. Salmon is rich in omega-3s, which has been shown to reduce anxiety. Other foods like dark chocolate and tea are packed with antioxidants that protect our body's from the wear and tear associated with prolonged stress.

There are a few simple (and tasty) ways to help you follow a more Mediterranean eating pattern. First of all, focus on eating veggies all day long. Add greens to your smoothie, veggies to your pasta and tack on a side salad to dinner. Snacking on foods like veggies and hummus will up your intake and help you feel full. When you need an afternoon pick-me-up or post-dinner treat, turn to nuts and fruit. Prioritize healthy fats like olive oil and salmon over red meat, and pair them with a whole grain and veggies for a well-rounded, delicious meal. Last but certainly not least, allow yourself to enjoy a little bit of wine (key word being little). Wine has health benefits including improved mood, heart health, brain health and gut health, and is an important part of a Mediterrean diet. The Mediterranean diet is about enjoying your meals and focusing on including a variety of whole foods, rather than being restrictive. For more inspiration, check out our Mediterranean Diet Center.