sarah knapton, science editor

Holiday Boost

Holidays boost health for a month after returning… and even alter genes to enhance immune system

People suffering back-to-work-blues after their summer holiday should take heart after scientists found the benefits of a vacation are physical as well as psychological, and can last for a month after returning home. Although previous studies have shown that getting away has a positive impact on mental health the new research is the first to prove that a retreat can actually change how our genes function.

Scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine, University of California and Harvard found that just six days away triggers genetic changes which dampens stress, boosts the immune system and lowers levels of proteins linked to dementia and depression. And some of the beneficial effects were still apparent one month later.

“It’s intuitive that taking a vacation reduces biological processes related to stress, but it was still impressive to see the large changes in gene expression from being away from the busy pace of life, in a relaxing environment, in such a short period of time,” said Dr Elissa Epel, Professor of Psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco and first author of the study. “Our results point to both a significant ‘vacation effect’ that benefited all groups, and a suppression of stress-related responses.”

The team also found that holidays which included meditation practice had an added benefit to health. The study involved 94 healthy women aged between 30 and 60 who were recruited to stay at a meditation retreat in California for six days. Half were simply told to relax on vacation while the others joined a programme which included meditation, yoga and self-reflection exercises. The team were hoping to discover the long term impact of the ‘vacation effect’ and the ‘mediation effect’, and to see if one was better than the other.

Researchers collected blood samples, and well-being surveys, from all participants immediately before and after their stay, one month and ten months later. They then compared the activity of 20,000 genes to determine if any altered during and after the resort experience. The results show that all groups had significant changes in molecular network patterns after the week at the resort, compared with their pre-vacation biology. The most notable changes in gene activity were related to stress response and immune function. Researchers also assessed self-reported measures of well-being. While all groups showed psychological improvements up to one month later, the novice meditators also had fewer symptoms of depression and less stress than the non-meditating vacationers after 10 months. The team say the finding shows that mediation can have important physical changes on the body.

“Based on our results, the benefit we experience from meditation isn’t strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifiable change in how our bodies function,” said Dr Rudolph Tanzi, Professor of Neurology at Harvard University

“Meditation is one of the ways to engage in restorative activities that may provide relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stress of a body constantly trying to protect itself. The prediction is that this would then lead to healthier aging. “The psychological effects appear to be enduring and it is unknown how much of this longer lasting benefit may be due to continued practice or lasting changes in how people view events in their lives.”

The team is hoping to conduct more studies which show if the effect only exists for resort holidays, or if the same impact would be found by staying at home.

“These findings will have to be replicated to see if the changes are reliably invoked under the same circumstances, in future studies, and compared to an at-home control group,” added Dr Epel.

The study was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

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