A weird little study has popped up recently that took a creative approach in trying to understand the differences between vacationing and meditation for stress reduction. While meditation, yoga, and self-reflective exercises have been known to reduce stress, it hasn’t been clear whether this was due to some distinct “meditation effect” or simply the result of relaxation. The researchers believe they have found biological differences in how the two relaxation methods affect the body.
The study took 94 healthy women between the ages of 30–60, of whom 64 were identified as not being regular meditators, while the remaining 30 were categorized as “novice meditators”. Participants stayed at a California resort for six days and were randomly assigned to one of two groups: the first group got to vacation normally while the second joined a meditation training program.
The program, designed by Deepak Chopra, included yoga, mantra meditation, and other self-reflective exercises. A third group of 30 “experienced meditators” who were enrolled in the meditation program were also examined. Blood samples and surveys asking about depression and stress symptoms were collected both before and after the resort stay, as well as one month and ten months afterwards.
All three groups showed significant changes in gene expression after the resort stay that were primarily focused around alterations to stress response, immune function, and amyloid beta metabolism. Since these changes were similar across the three groups, it was dubbed to be the “vacation effect” (normal relaxation) at play. The regular meditators also showed additional changes related to protein synthesis regulation and viral genome activity. This effect was not seen in the non-meditators who were part of the meditation group.
During the surveys, all three groups reported comparative reductions of stress, worry, and other symptoms of depression. However, only the novice meditators seemed to have the effects persist longer than the non-meditating vacationers. Why the experienced meditators did not show a similar extension was not elaborated on.
Based on these results, the researchers concluded that their findings suggest that a retreat for those already trained in meditation could provide benefits to cellular health beyond those of normal vacation, and that the easing of stress on the body could lead to healthier aging. These conclusions, to put it mildly, are not justified.
The main flaw in the researchers’ reasoning is the fact that gene expression changes all the time—genes turn on and off to regulate various processes throughout the body—so noticing a gene change on its own doesn’t actually mean much.
The fact that the meditators saw different gene expressions, but no other measured differences compared to the non-meditators, suggests that the change in expression is either superfluous, statistical noise, or affected something which wasn’t being measured. Regardless, trying to draw the conclusion that cellular health was being benefited would be flat-out wrong since no measurements of cellular health were taken.
The fact that the novice meditators reported prolonged effects was interesting, but it’s unclear why; they could simply be continuing the meditation practices they learned at the resort. The lack of a similar extension in the experienced meditators, who you would expect would display better meditation-only results, seems to suggest the finding being more statistical noise than anything else.
Comparing meditation effects on stress reduction to vacation effects is a novel idea, but unfortunately the researchers went beyond establishing differences and started trying to “prove” extra beneficial effects that their evidence can’t support.
“Systems Biology Research Study Reveals Benefits of Vacation and Meditation,” Mount Sinai Hospital web site, August 30, 2016; http://www.mountsinai.org/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/systems-biology-research-study-reveals-benefits-of-vacation-and-meditation, last accessed August 31, 2016.
Epel, E., et. al., “Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes,” Translational Psychiatry, 2016; 10.1038/tp.2016.164.