Which is healthier:
- A week of vacation at a resort in California
- A week at a resort, doing a meditation-training program that includes mantra meditation, yoga and self-reflection exercises?
Scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the University of California-San Francisco and Harvard Medical School teamed up to find out. In research just published in Translational Psychiatry, the scientists dug deep—real deep, like gene-level deep, looking at how meditation and relaxation might change the expression of 20,000 genes.
Their study involved 94 healthy women, ages 30 to 60, some who were regular meditators already and some who were not. The study participants all stayed at the same California resort, where half enjoyed a regular vacation and half were enrolled in a meditation training program run by the Chopra Center for Well Being (you may be wondering: ‘How do I recruited for this type of research?’ Me, too!)
Researchers collected blood samples from the vacationers, well as surveys with self-reported measures on feelings of well-being—both before the stay, one month after, and 10 months afterward. The team was looking for the changes in 20,000 genes, comparing gene expression networks. They found that in all groups—the novice meditators, experienced meditators and “plain” vacationers—there were major changes in their molecular network patterns after only a week at the resort. The changes most noticeable were, not surprisingly, related to stress response and immune function.
On the measures of self-reported well being, all groups felt better up to month later, feeling less depression and stress. Novice meditators enjoyed the most lasting benefits.
“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,” wrote study author Elissa Epel, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco. “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.”
Researchers also want to see if these benefits to our immune systems may also lead to healthier aging. In the meantime, it sounds like it’s time to book that vacation—or better yet, a getaway involving an integrated wellness program, with some yoga, meditation and other training as well.