The Health Benefits of a Vacation
During the holiday seasons, many people are fortunate enough to be able to take a rest from their stressful lives and recharge while taking a vacation. The stories that I head from patients regarding health changes while taking a vacation are quite remarkable, and range from infectious disease (“I was sick with a sinus infection the day before I left and it was gone after a day in the sun”), psychiatry (“my mood and energy began to pick up after a few days”), endocrinology and energy (“I was finally waking refreshed”) to even dermatology (“the psoriasis started to clear even more”). Are all these changes related simply to de-stressing? Possibly, but there are definite nutritional and hormonal parameters that change when you take off for 7-10 days. I’ll tell you how you might be able to implement a few of these changes and feel like you have just had a tropical vacation (although it is far more fun to actually go on one)!
Perhaps the most fundamental thing that changes on a good vacation is our stress level. I have written on other pages how our body responds to stress, and how there are specific changes in how our adrenal glands, or more accurately, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), function in daily life.
The HPA axis is involved with secreting the anti-stress hormone cortisol at a rhythm described in the picture. If I suspect that chronic stress is contributing to a patient’s stress, anxiety, insomnia, or fatigue then I check the rhythm of cortisol output by checking saliva levels four times throughout the day. Often times, patients who can benefit from medicines and therapies directed towards the HPA and adrenals will have a flattened, low cortisol output.
When you are stressed, your body naturally starts to secrete more anti-stress hormone cortisol. Our bodies are adapted for short-term stress, but not for long-term stress. As such, over the years our adrenal glands and HPA axis can “burn-out” and under-produce cortisol. Going on vacation can often be such a strong de-stressor that the rhythm is reset, and energy starts to pick up. Thankfully, this improvement persists after you return home, although it would be best to not let yourself get back into the same situation.
Another very drastic change in the hormone levels changes when you go on vacation, but only if you go to a locale where you get to spend some time in the warm sun. Vitamin D is almost always deficient in our Vancouver population during the winter, as the main source for our bodies is not in milk but from the sun. When our skin is exposed to the sun, especially the strong sun of the places we often visit while on vacation, we produce massive amounts of vitamin D, usually about 20, 000 IU per day. Vitamin D is not just important in the maintenance of calcium levels, but acts as a hormone that has wide-ranging effects.
One of the most important roles of vitamin D is in the production of the body’s natural antibiotics and antiviral proteins. Hence, often times a patient will state that an infection that normally would take 7-10 days to clear is gone within a day of vacation. Although the cure is often attributed to the ocean sea-salt air, vitamin D production by the skin is a much more likely possibility. Remember, rates of influenza (the flu) usually increase in times of the year when vitamin D production is low (fall and winter).
Vitamin D’s role in the immune system is not limited to fighting acute episodic infections. In some of my rheumatic arthritis patients (and related autoimmune diseases such as lupus), I use vitamin D in large doses to put the immune system into a better state of balance, regulating the attack and decreasing the pain and damage in the patient. This use of vitamin D even extends to certain conditions of the skin that involve the immune system, including psoriasis.
There is even evidence that vitamin D may have a role in combating depression. A german study has shown that depressed patients have lower levels of vitamin D. Another study in Australia showed that a small dosage of vitamin D was able to raise mood in healthy people. And a study compared high dose vitamin D to light therapy in SAD (seasonal affective disorder, or over-simply lowered mood in the winter) and found that vitamin D was superior. Having used it extensively in my patients, it is definitely not the cure or the 100% answer to depression, but it absolutely is helpful.
Sleep and wake at the same time each day. This helps to re-establish the cortisol secretion pattern in the picture above.
Avoid napping during the day. If you are tired during the day, and feel the need for a nap, this is a sign that the adrenal health is sub-optimal. Evaluation for the cortisol pattern secretion and for sugar control will guide to correct treatment.
Avoid alcohol 4-6 hours before bedtime. While it can help you fall asleep, the withdrawal effect a few hours later will cause you to wake.
Stay away from all sources of caffeine from 6 hours before bedtime.
Black-out conditions in the bedroom are most conducive to restoring proper melatonin production at night, and for keeping the cortisol rhythm correct.
If you are not able to sleep in 10-15 minutes, leave to another room to read something relaxing until sleepy again.
How can we mimic these changes, at least until we can take a real vacation?
Focusing on improving our adrenal or HPA axis health is important. For those that are able to sleep, consistently getting 8 – 9 hours of sleep a night can help.
Vitamin C, pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), and magnesium are useful nutrients for the adrenal gland, and can help to restore normal adrenal and HPA axis function. Orally, these nutrients can improve your response to stress. These are the main nutrients that we use with good success in nutritional injections to support the adrenals and combat chronic fatigue. A course of 6 injections over 3-6 weeks often can get the adrenals into “just-vacationed” shape.
Orally, Adreset and Serenagen are herbal medicines that can be used to support healthy hormonal output by the adrenals. If you have your adrenal hormone levels tested as described above, then specific replacement therapies can be done as well.
Vitamin D is perhaps the easiest change to mimic. For good overall information on vitamin D and it’s role in health, I recommend the site www.vitamindcouncil.com.
In the meantime, my patients will benefit by getting their blood levels to 125 nmol/L. While the blood test is a bit more expensive at about $140, it is extremely useful to ensure that adequate dosing is used. Since vitamin D is a hormone, it shouldn’t be used in extremely large doses without us monitoring you. On average, we start patients on 2000 IU to 4000 IU a day during the winter. Contraindications for vitamin D (without monitoring) include ganulomatous diseases, undiagnosed and unmonitored cancer, blood calcium problems, and hyper-parathyroidism.
Simple steps described above can hopefully get us feeling to “just-vacationed” levels. While the symptoms of a “stress-related” condition are usually well-known, they can include fatigue, anxiety, muscle tension, insomnia, and depression. Below is also attached an adrenal stress questionnaire; if you are scoring high, it is highly recommended that you come in for an adrenal stress assessment. If these symptoms persist, assessment for the adrenals as described above, nutritional assessment, and assessment of the body burden of toxins will help to find the correct treatment to get us well (which might include a vacation!).