If you’ve been toying with the idea of booking an overseas vacation or even a mini-break so you can escape the daily grind for a few days, we’ve got news that might just give you the final push you need. Taking a vacation has numerous health benefits for both your body and mind, including reducing stress, heart disease prevention, improved productivity and better sleep. But, (and this is where things get really interesting), Harvard research reveals that meditating whilst you are on vacation restores your body and mind at a genetic level.
Scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the University of California, San Francisco, and the Harvard Medical School studied 94 healthy women aged 30-60 to assess the biological impact of meditation compared to vacation. Whilst 30 of the participants who took part in the study were experienced meditators already enrolled at a retreat, sixty four of the women who were recruited were not regular meditators. All of the participants stayed at the same resort in California for six days, and whilst half of the women who did not practice meditation regularly were simply left to enjoy their vacation as they normally would, the other half joined a meditation program designed by Deepak Chopra, MD, which included training in mantra meditation, yoga, and self-reflection exercises.
In order to study and compare the effects of what scientists dubbed the “meditation effect” with the “vacation effect” researchers collected blood samples and surveys from the women immediately before and after their stay, as well as surveys one month and ten months later.
The research team examined the changes in 20,000 genes to determine which types of genes were changing before and after the resort experience. Study results show that all groups – the novice meditators, experienced meditators and the vacationers – had significant changes in molecular network patterns after a week at the resort. The “vacation effect” was evident amongst all participants with the most notable changes in gene activity related to stress response and immune function.
What happens when we take a break and make time to relax is that the genes which are normally needed to deal with stress, injury and wound healing (such as MME and FOX03) also take a break. The decrease in our body of these stress-related genes has an antidepressant effect, leaving us with the increased feelings of happiness and wellbeing we experience after a vacation.
But what happens when you add meditation to the equation? Well, something pretty exciting actually. You see, the blood taken from the group of novice meditators immediately after the retreat showed the highest increase in the blood-biomarker (plasma Aβ42:Aβ40 ratios) that is predictive of a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia and major depression. The experienced meditators showed less of an increase because of course, they already had healthy levels of Aβ42:Aβ40 ratios. The study also showed, interestingly, that the regular, experienced meditators also had longer telomeres—a genetic component predictive of healthy ageing. Short telomeres are linked to earlier onset of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. But regular meditation can provide relief for our immune system, lower certain health risks and lead to healthier aging.
“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 Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. “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.”
So what are you waiting for…go and book that holiday. Better yet, why not combine a mini break with the benefits of meditation and yoga, and book into a retreat.