We all look forward to time off from work, from school, from our obligations. But did you know that vacations are supportive of healthy living and offer the ideal stress relief? We know.
“I advocate frequent vacations as a vital component of wellness,” says Dr. Tom Potisk, the “Down-to-Earth” Doctor, and author of Whole Health Healing: the Budget-Friendly Natural Wellness Bible for All Ages. “The human body and soul needs rest, but also needs new experiences to thrive,” Dr. Potisk says, “so vacations can supply both. A vacation can recharge energy levels, the immune system, and one’s creative ability.”
Dr. Potisk actually coaches doctors around the country, advising them to take more vacations of their own, so that their health and their practices thrive. But his theory excludes no one: According to him, we all need vacations to lower our stress from time to time.
The Effects of Stress
Dr. Srinivas Iyengar, with Bradenton Cardiology Center on Florida’s Gulf Coast, explains the science of stress. “Stress itself is usually in an acute phase,” he says, meaning it’s brief and severe. “You’re about to avoid a traffic accident, for example. Stress response is the body’s way of telling an individual to do something drastic at that moment. Your body releases hormones—adrenaline and cortisol—that help in the acute phase. The ‘fight or flight response’ is the body’s response to some sort of stimulus: it goes into anxious or hyper-reactive mode. “You stand your ground and ‘fight’ (in a manner of speaking), or take flight to survive,” says the doctor.
But stress response, an essential survival tool, is not good when it’s chronic in nature, explains Dr. Iyengar. “The body isn’t prepared for chronic stress,” he says. “When we’re exposed to the daily rigors of work every day, or a bad job, a bad employer, even the drive to work, you get chronic exposure to the hormones that help in the acute phase. The body actually suffers damage to blood vessels over time, due to inflammation of hormonal releases. Evidence is now bearing out that anxiety is being linked to heart disease, and that these hormones exacerbate underlying heart disease if you’re genetically programmed to have it.”
Dr. Iyengar further explains the effects of stress, explaining, “If you’re diabetic, obese, or have high blood pressure, and you throw in stress on top of that, it will exacerbate those problems.”
Stay-at-home moms are equally needy of stress management and vacations. “Heart disease is the ‘silent killer’ of women, and most women juggle a mind-boggling list of responsibilities,” says cardiologist John Cebe of Greenville, South Carolina. “Women’s’ bodies—and their hearts—need a break from daily stressors,” he says, “the same way that men’s do.”
Studies on Stress
Scientific data supports doctors’ theories on using vacations as means of lower stress management. An article from the September 17, 2008 edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that vacations live up to their billing, for health as well as pleasure. The subjects of the study were 12,338 men between the ages of 35 and 57. All were free of heart disease when the study began. Over the course of a nine-year study, men who took the most vacations were 29% less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease and 17% less likely to die, than those who did not take regular vacations. (The beneficial health effect of vacations remained valid after socioeconomic considerations and cardiovascular risk factors were taken into account.)
This study on vacations and health is not one of a kind. Research repeatedly concludes that health fades over time if we don’t take a break.
“You have to separate yourself from the work situation,” says Dr. Iyengar, “or from the usual rigors of what you do every day. Do something completely different than what you’re used to doing.”
The change of scenery is psychological. It doesn’t count to take a day off and surround yourself with the stress of your typical environment: the stack of bills, the local traffic, and the things that need fixing. Conversely, going from one stressful environment to another doesn’t really help much, either. If you don’t get along with your in-laws, don’t pretend that spending a week with them is a vacation. It isn’t effective stress management, as far as your body is concerned.
Dr. Murray Grossan, M.D., Los Angeles, author of Stressed? Anxiety? Your Cure is in the Mirror puts stress in historical perspective for us. There has always been a ‘vacation spot’ in every culture, according to his book. Either these were hot springs where one could get ‘cured,’ or a lovely place with clean fresh air, or just a new place with sights to see. Just 100 years ago, the cure for most of the ills that we have pills for today, was to go to a vacation ‘spa.’
Dr. Grossan says the daily feeling of ‘I can’t’ can change with rest and regeneration to freedom from negative thoughts. Constant stressors deplete lots of our good body chemistry, but freedom from daily stressors allows the chemistry to recover. Can a vacation heal you? Yes, he says. Can a vacation give you a clear head so you can make life-altering decisions? Yes again.
Lower Stress with Vacations
Wondering which vacation destination is your best choice to lower stress? “There’s not really any definitive vacation that’s better than another,” says Dr. Iyengar. “What we tell individuals is just do something that’s not related to your day-to-day activity. Something that takes your body and mind out of your daily situation.”
There are things you can do for lower stress relief during and after your vacation, too. Tell your coworkers and friends you will be “unplugging” and “unavailable” except in emergency situations. Leave yourself a day to adjust when you get home. Pack lightly. Leave your computer behind. Turn off the phone for extended periods of time, or don’t take it at all. Don’t even use clocks if you can avoid them: just follow your body’s natural rhythms. Stay within your vacation budget.
“It’s also a good idea not to overdo it on eating unhealthy foods or drinking too much alcohol,” says nutritionist and registered dietitian Elaine Hastings. “Try to balance your rest with some physical activity, and eat fruits, vegetables and lean protein. Don’t go nuts on sugars, processed foods or cocktails, or you’ll be depressed at your weight gain when you get home,” she says. “You’d rather come home invigorated, rested, and refreshed,” she counsels, “than feeling sluggish from five extra pounds. Treat yourself, sure, but make mostly healthy choices so you don’t pay a price later.”
With this in hand, enjoy your vacation. It’s good for you.