In a new study comparing a meditation retreat with just relaxing in the same locale, both options improved stress regulation, immune function and other cellular markers in the blood.
Researchers measured gene activity, blood markers and reported well-being during the vacation and months later, and found a large and immediate “vacation effect” in all participants. For those who continued meditating, benefits were seen even 10 months later.
“Vacation in a relaxing, resort-like environment takes you away from your day-to-day grind, which may be high stress in which your body is in a more defensive-like posture, with pressures to meet deadlines, dealing with angry customers, 'battling' with colleagues for resources to accomplish your mission,” said senior author Dr Eric Schadt, founding director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mount Sinai, New York.
“On a relaxing vacation you allow your body to get out of that defensive posture, reduce your levels of stress, which in turn affects the states of cells in your immune system.”
At the molecular level additional changes only happened, or happened more, in the meditation group, including more effective manufacture and use of proteins, he noted. “We don’t know what this means exactly, but given associations with biomarkers of ageing, there is the potential that these changes could enhance overall well-being and longevity.”
The researchers enrolled 102 women, aged 30 to 60, in the study and tested their blood before and after five days at the La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, California.
Some women were participating in a meditation and yoga retreat, while others were simply staying at the resort.
About a third of the women had already booked the retreat and were regular meditators, while the remaining 70 had no history of meditating.
Half of the non-meditators were randomly assigned to the meditation programme and the other half were randomly assigned to vacation only.
In addition to providing blood samples before and after the retreat, the women reported on their depression symptoms, stress, vitality and mindfulness on day five, one month later and 10 months later.
Psychological well-being scores improved for all three groups by day five and one month later. At the 10-month point, women who had meditated during the retreat had greater decreases in depressive symptoms and stress than those who had only been on vacation, according to the results reported in Translational Psychiatry.
Vacation and meditation seemed to turn down defence responses, inflammation response and innate immune response, Schadt said.
It’s not clear if a week-long vacation or meditation sessions would lead to changes in corresponding diseases, he said. The authors acknowledge that the study, which was funded by The Chopra Foundation and Benioff Foundation, is small and doesn’t measure whether the changes observed will have any effect on disease or longevity.
“I don’t know that our results are such that they would speak to changes people should make in their lives to achieve a more healthy state, but rather it is another strong piece of evidence that relaxing and meditating may produce favourable healthy benefits,” Schadt said.
“There is little doubt reduced stress is beneficial for health, or at least associated with better health outcomes,” said Dr Guillaume Pare, the co-director of the McMaster Genome Facility at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who was not part of the new study. “However, linking the specific genes and pathways identified in the paper to health outcomes will require much work to confirm.”