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Why Thanksgiving is Healthy For You

It has nothing to do with that second piece of pumpkin pie.
Why Thanksgiving is Healthy For You

You probably know that Thanksgiving is great; you probably don’t know that it may actually make you healthier.  

That's surprisng, considering you might already be on your second piece of pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday of the year. I love the football, the food, the four-day weekend, and the non-dogmatic spirit of celebration.  But more than anything, I love Thanksgiving because of the warm feelings I experience reflecting on all that I am grateful for in the company of friends and family.  

Could the warmth that I enjoy be more than just a feeling (or the after-dinner whisky)?  Years of science help answer this question, and suggest that the act of gratitude makes us healthier by subconsciously promoting healthy behaviors, like exercise and sleep, and changing our biochemistry and physiology for the better.  Here’s how it works. (Note: the research profiled below uses clever methods to overcome an issue called “reverse causality,” or the fact that already healthy people are probably happier than not-so-healthy people to begin with).

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A study was conducted in which undergraduate students were split into three distinct groups:

1) Students were asked to write down up to five things they were grateful for at the end of each week.

2) Students were asked to write down up to five hassles from their lives at the end of each week.

3) Students were asked to write down up to five random events that affected them at the end of each week.

At the end of the 10-week study, the students in Group 1 (i.e., the “gratitude” group) had exercised 16 percent more than those in Group 3 (i.e., the “random events” group) and a whopping 45 percent more than those in Group 2 (i.e., the “hassles” group).  The scientists explain that giving thanks triggers an “upward spiral” of overall well-being and works to “broaden mindsets and build enduring personal resources that function as reserves in times of need.”  In other words, gratitude subtly opens our minds to all sorts of possibilities – for example, taking our fitness to the next level – and strengthens our willpower reserves to help us execute on those possibilities. 

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Another study investigated the effects of gratitude on adults who were sick with neuromuscular diseases. The researchers found that individuals who were asked to reflect on things they were grateful for slept, on average, an additional half-hour versus a control group.  Furthermore, the “grateful group” reported a significantly better quality of sleep, reporting that they felt more refreshed upon awakening. 

Psychologists explain that sleep quantity and quality is in part determined by “pre-sleep cognitions,” or the thoughts going through our mind when our head hits the pillow. If we’ve reflected on all that we are grateful for during the day, our mind is literally more at ease when nighttime rolls around, leading to increased and better sleep. This makes sense; just think about how much easier it is to fall asleep on nights when you feel completely content versus on nights when you may be worried and anxious. And yes, all the Tryptophan from the turkey probably doesn’t hurt on Thanksgiving in particular.  

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Gratitude also increases “positive affect,” or general feelings of positivity, which has been shown to result in enhanced immunity and improved heart health.  A study of first-year law students (a reliable source of high-stress people under duress) found a strong relationship between optimism and cell-mediated immunity (i.e., actual changes in our blood chemistry that support immunity).  The optimistic students had far better biochemistry compared to their more pessimistic peers.  The authors note that while “law school predicted changes in cellular immune function,” (no surprise there) interventions that increase optimism – like giving thanks – “could improve immunity and health.” 

Other research shows that positive affect also protects the heart by leading to alterations in heart-rate-variability, which may be especially “helpful in the treatment of hypertension and reducing the likelihood of sudden death in patients with heart diseases.”  While the exact mechanisms underlying these biochemical and physiological changes are still unclear, experts generally agree that giving thanks (and the subsequent optimism gratitude generates) not only changes our psychology, but changes our physiology and chemistry too.  

While practicing gratitude every day is your best bet – a very simple way to do this is to reflect on something you are grateful for at the end of every day – being grateful is especially easy during Thanksgiving.  So enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday, and know that doing so actually makes you healthier.  

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