Although laboratory measurements of blood pressure were not affected by pistachios, real-world measures of blood pressure (measured by an automated monitor) were significantly lower after the pistachio diet. Katherine A. Sauder, former graduate student in biobehavioral health, conducted these measurements.
"We found that systolic blood pressure during sleep was particularly affected by pistachios," she said. "Average sleep blood pressure was reduced by about 4 points and this would be expected to lower workload on the heart."
The researchers found that the pistachio diet lowered vascular constriction during stress. When arteries are dilated, the load on the heart is reduced. The physical challenge involved immersing one hand into icy water for two minutes.
"This cold stressor produces a large vascular constriction response in most people," said West. "In comparison with a low fat diet, the pistachio diet blunted that vascular response to stress."
The same pattern was seen when participants engaged in a challenging and confusing mental arithmetic task.
"Our participants still felt frustrated and angry during the math test," West noted. "The pistachio diet reduced their bodies' responses to stress, but nuts are not a cure for the emotional distress that we feel in our daily lives."
Sauder added: "As in our last study of pistachios, we did not see lower blood pressure in the laboratory setting with this dose of nuts. However, we were surprised and pleased to see that 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure was lower after the pistachio diet."
The researchers also recorded improvements in heart rate variability, a measure of how well the nervous system controls heart function. These data indicate that pistachios increased the activity of the vagus nerve, an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system that can be damaged
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