How vacation lowers disease risk at the cellular level

For years, I was never one to take a vacation. I’m not a “planner,” and, well, some might argue that vacations are best done with at least some advanced planning.

But a few years ago, I started feeling a little burnout, and I had the time to take. So I started taking “staycations.”

I’d take a three or four-day weekend here or there. Sometimes if a holiday fell on a Friday or Monday, I’d increase it to five days, but never really more than that. And what a difference it made in my stress level!

And you do know how important that is, right? Stress shortens your telomeres, a part of your chromosomes that’s associated with cellular aging. The shorter your telomeres, the quicker you age and the more likely you are to succumb to diseases like heart disease, diabetes and the C-word.

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The reason staycations worked for me, and a lot of other people, is they don’t add to the stress you are already trying to escape from. No packing, no reservations, no boarding the pets and no panic over getting to the airport on time.

Whatever I decided to do on those days off was typically spur of the moment: a day trip to see a friend; an overnight destination jaunt; a lazy brunch on my back deck… or just a few days at the house to clean out a closet, organize the basement, weed the garden — things that were both productive and stress-relieving, didn’t break the bank… and frankly, good for the soul.

But everyone is different. You might prefer a grander vacation — maybe a trip to an exotic beach resort, mountain get-a-way or to see the Eiffel Tower. And that kind of trip has its perks too. In fact, that kind of vacation just might help you live longer by boosting your health on the cellular level…

Tame cytokines with time off

It turns out that an “inspiring vacation,” one that evokes positive emotions in the presence of awe-inspiring natural elements, meaningful art or grand architecture, reduces levels of cells called cytokines — inflammatory natural substances that can harmfully switch the immune system into overdrive causing damaging inflation to soar (not the way you get frequent flyer miles).

Cytokines play a useful role in gathering immune cells to destroy pathogenic invaders. But when cytokine levels stay elevated without a disease to fight, it can drag down your health and complicate serious chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

The Berkeley researchers, who discovered these vacation perks, pointed out that it has been well-established that getting enough sleep, exercising and eating a good diet can help keep cytokines at optimal levels. But now positive emotions and experiences should be added to the list of helpful ways to control inflammation.

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“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions — a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art — has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” says researcher Dacher Keltner.

But regardless of what kind of vacation is your cup of tea, there are a few tips you can follow before, during and after that can boost your vacation-related health benefits…

  • Researchers at the University of Tampere in Finland found that the benefits of a vacation actually start a few days before your physical getaway. So for the greatest reward from time off, make sure you relish the thought about how great your vacation is going to be right before it actually starts — and then bask in the memories of what a wonderful time you had even after you’re back at work.
  • When the Finn scientists examined the results of vacations, they found that the ideal length of a vacation is about eight days. During that time, they found, the warm feelings of being away from it all gradually rose until they peaked in a little over a week. After eight days, the wellness benefits dropped off.

So no matter how you spend your time off, what matters most is how your vacation makes you feel. If low-key relaxation is your thing — more power to you… or if you’re a jet-setting adventurer seeker, as long as you experience lots of positive emotions along the way, your vacation will do just what it should: make you feel refreshed, boost your health and prepare you to come back to the job at hand with renewed energy and vitality.

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Margaret Cantwell

By Margaret Cantwell

Margaret Cantwell began her paleo diet in 2010 in an effort to lose weight. Since then, the diet has been instrumental in helping her overcome a number of other health problems. Thanks to the benefits she has enjoyed from her paleo diet and lifestyle, she dedicates her time as Editor of Easy Health Digest™, researching and writing about a broad range of health and wellness topics, including diet, exercise, nutrition and supplementation, so that readers can also be empowered to experience their best health possible.