The Benefits of Vacation

My prolonged Internet absence from the last month or so was due to a prolonged vacation. In Europe. Which I loved. Both the vacation and the Europe. Y’all, people, young and old, listen to me: do not neglect vacations for they strengthen the body, nourish the soul, and embolden the spirit.

More pragmatically, vacations lower the stress level. Yes, even the stressful vacations lower the stress level, because the acute stress effects of “My room is not ready yet”/”Jimmy puked in the car”/”Airline lost my luggage” are temporary and physiologically different from the chronic stress effects of “I’ll lose my job if I don’t meet these deadlines”/”I don’t know if I can keep my health insurance with this job”/”I’m worried for my child’s safety”/”My kids will suffer if I get a divorce”/”I can’t make the rent this month”.

Chronic stress results in a whole slew of real nasties, like cognitive, learning, and memory impairments, behavioral changes, issues with impulse control, immune system problems, weight gain, cardiovascular disease and so on and so on and so on. Even death. As I told my students countless of times, chronic stress to the body is as real and physical as a punch in the stomach but far more dangerous. So take a vacation as often as you can. Even a few days of total disconnect help tremendously.

There are literally thousands of peer-reviewed papers out there that describe the ways in which stress produces all those bad things, but not so many papers about the effects of vacations. I suspect this is due to the inherent difficulty in accounting for the countless environmental variables that can influence one’s vacation and its outcomes, whereas identifying and characterizing stressors is much easier. In other words, lack of experimental control leads to paucity of good data. Nevertheless, from this paucity, Chen & Petrick (2013) carefully selected 98 papers from both academic and nonacademic publications about the benefits of travel vacations.

These are my take-home bullet-points:

  • vacation effects last no more than a month
  • vacations reduce both the subjective perception of stress and the objective measurement of it (salivary cortisol)
  • people feel happier after taking a vacation
  • there are some people who do not relax in a vacation, presumably because they cannot ‘detach’ themselves from the stressors in their everyday life (long story here why some people can’t let go of problems)
  • vacations lower the occurrence of cardiovascular disease
  • vacations decrease work-related stress, work absenteeism, & work burnout
  • vacations increase job performance
  • the more you do on a vacation the better you feel, particularly if you’re older
  • you benefit more if you do new things or go to new places instead of just staying home
  • vacations increase overall life satisfaction

Happy vacationing!

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REFERENCE: Chen, C-C & Petrick, JF (Nov. 2013, Epub 17 Jul. 2013). Health and Wellness Benefits of Travel Experiences: A Literature Review, Journal of Travel Research, 52(6):709-719. doi: 10.1177/0047287513496477. ARTICLE | FULLTEXT PDF via ResearchGate.

By Neuronicus, 20 July 2018

Tryptophan-rich foods and happiness

angry-woman public domainThe paper I feature today is not an experimental study, but an editorial written as a short review (5 pages). A not very good one, I’m afraid.

Neurochemical imbalances are to be found in virtual any brain disorder. Probably the most known is the serotonin depletion associated to depression, which is the main reason why SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are so widely prescribed for the disorder. With the caveats that serotonin is but one player, that it has many receptors involved in different aspects of the disease and “depression” is an umbrella term for a host of behaviors, this editorial focuses on non-pharmacological ways to address the depletion of serotonin. Noble goal, poor execution.

In a nutshell, Young (2007) argues that there are 4 ways to increase serotonin availability in the brain:
1) effortful focusing on positive things, either via psychotherapy, talk, social interactions, mediation or just mental exercises to consciously improve mood. I’m sure that the thought of trying to focus on the positive thoughts never crossed the minds of depressed people! Of course that this is how healthy people regulate their moods, everybody is sad or suffers loss at some point in their life and a lot of people snap out of it by engaging in those suggested behaviors, but the trouble with depression is that it persists despite efforts to be positive. The author should know that crying “Cheer up!” to a depressed person never works, but chances are they would feel even more alienated because they’ve tried that already!
2) exposure to bright light (3000 lux). No contention here. Light therapy is successful in treating seasonal depression. We should all get more light.
3) exercise. It’s unclear which kind, aerobic or to fatigue, but probably either would work.
4) eating tryptophan-rich foods (like meat, cheeses or eggs). Why tryptophan? Because the brain can make serotonin out of tryptophan, but serotonin itself is too big of a molecule to enter the brain (i.e. doesn’t cross the brain blood barrier). But the author admits that “although purified tryptophan increases brain serotonin, foods containing tryptophan do not” (p. 396) soooo,… then eating tryptophan-rich foods will NOT increase the serotonin. But then he goes on saying that drinking milk or eating nixtamalized corn increases serotonin (verbatim: “Acute ingestion of alpha-lactalbumin by humans can improve mood and cognition in some circumstances, presumably owing to increased serotonin” and “Breeding corn with a higher tryptophan content was shown in the 1980s to prevent pellagra; presumably, it also raised brain serotonin” p. 396-397). Utterly confusing and self-contradictory.

I also want to make a big note here:
a) there is no reliable evidence that eating tryptophan-rich foods increases the brain serotonin. Otherwise, instead of paying for Prozac, you would buy a huge bottle of tryptophan pills from the nearest dietary supplements store. Which brings me to my second point:
b) why don’t we give tryptophan supplements instead of SSRIs? Tryptophan is sold in USA as a dietary supplement which I think is a tremendously dangerous thing to allow (in most EU countries is considered a drug, so you can’t buy it from the shoddy dietary supplements stores). Because its efficacy in depression is inconclusive at best, i.e. most studies did not find significant improvements, while others showed improvement only in a subpopulation of depression sufferers. But it can induce nausea, sleepiness, confusion, depression, and even dementia symptoms and death. And interacts badly with other drugs or even with carbohydrate-rich foods, like pizza or pasta.

This is definitely not among the best papers I have read. It has many speculations supported by un-replicated studies. Or, when such studies are sparse, the reasoning relies on evolutionary speculations elevated to the rank of causal explanations (e.g. we spend so much time indoors, therefore depression is on the rise; conversely, our ancestors spent more time outside, therefore they were happier). Although I agree with Young that we should invest more research into non-pharmacological ways to improve brain dysfunctions, we need to do so in a more pragmatical manner that just telling people to think positive. Ok, rant over.

Reference: Young SN (Nov 2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 32(6):394-399. PMID:18043762, PMCID:PMC2077351. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 3 December 2015