Allergens in the indoor environment are metabolically mischievous. They sap energy, disrupt sleep, and sabotage weight reduction plans. Allergen-imposed corporal stress manifests itself in ways similar to less-avoidable forms of stress. Consequently, indoor allergens often remain unrecognized and unmitigated. This Townsend Letter column identifies meritorious yet little-known ways to break the allergen-dysmetabolism cycle.
White spacing is a trendy name for scheduling unscheduled time. Since most of us are busier than we wish to be or should be, it's not surprising that white spacing is increasingly used for personal and corporate Day-Timers.
In my opinion, white spacing is a great name because it's a fitting entendre. White spacing makes it easier for me to visit my favorite white space – the beach. More often than the beach, I visit my second best white space – my room. That's why, with resourceful endeavor, I've found five ways to transform my bedroom to a "beach."
Fresh White Air
Hours after leaving the beach, my white T-shirt still beckons my olfactory system to the fresh-air moment. Olfaction is a chance to marvel – and is probably our most underutilized sense. I drink in the freshness and think, "I want my clothes and linens to smell like this."
Fresh air in one's home or office is to a large extent the absence of indoor air pollutant. That is why an effective air filter helps retain freshness. This may be the most advantageous time of year to use an air filter in the northern continental US. November is when people tend to make their homes more airtight and insulated and consequently concentrate indoor chemicals. People and their pets concentrate indoors, too. Pets, uninvited animals, plants, and lawn furniture relocate indoors, each with its distinct signature on indoor air. Blankets, sweaters, and holiday decorations emerge from their summer storage with a waft of naphthalene or rosemary-clove moth deterrents, and forced-air heating ducts, painted radiators, and fireplaces are back in use.
I run air filters in my home and my office and feel rewarded by "beachy" freshness. There is a wide selection of air filters available, some more effective than others, and my research led me to choose from a company that offers five different filters for different purposes. Interestingly, all their models look pretty much the same from the outside, but the filtration package on the inside is designed to meet varying specific allergen/pollutant needs. Apart from its casing needing occasional vacuuming, the filter component has a 5-year life expectancy before a new cartridge is needed. Filters come simply in two sizes, either standard or small for not-so-large rooms. See www.AustinAir.com to peruse customized filters.
Why so much emphasis on air filters? A longstanding challenge for environmental health researchers is measuring chemical exposures. While attending an environmental health sciences symposium at Johns Hopkins, I learned about a new source of data: silicone wristbands. Yes, I'm talking about the colorful trendy bracelets with monikers like "Life's a beach." For example, let's suppose that you and a friend wore identical "Kiss me I'm Irish" wristbands that you nimbly caught at the St Patrick's Day parade. After the parade, your friend drank green beer at a smoky pub, and you as the designated driver drank coffee at the char grill burger joint across the street. Environmental researchers could distinguish your bracelets based on exposures of cigarette smoke, alcohol, caffeine, and heterocyclic amines passively absorbed from ambient air and dermal contact.
Rooms may or may not have silicone, but they have various surfaces that absorb "fresh-deterring" chemicals. Utilizing an air filter set to run steadily on low speed reduces the toxins that would become part of other surfaces. I'm not aware of such a study, but it might prove enlightening to see if silicone wristbands are less distinguishable when air filters are used.
In sum, even if you don't want to wear a green silicone bracelet, bring some Irish blessing to your home. "May the wind be always at your back. …"
The silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves.
– Wolfgang A. Mozart
Sleep studies published in the scientific literature now fully apply the composer's statement to human health. Only with silence during sleep can the human body fully refresh itself. Removing silence disrupts and measurably alters sleep stages.
Second only to silence is the sound of surf. I recently had a multisensory surf experience while waiting in a medical office. During what would otherwise have been an anxious moment as the family member of a patient, I relaxed to an oceanscape projected on the wall accompanied by surf and an air-conditioned breeze. The entire office atmosphere seemed pleasantly different. Surf's salutary effects can be recreated by a sound machine, or some patients enjoy the air-flow white-noise sound effect of a home air filter. Air filters produce white noise as a byproduct of the filtering process. With a turn of a knob, the surf's up.
Small frequent doses of full-spectrum light, like an early morning jog on the beach, have among their benefits a vitamin D boost and melatonin signal. Unfortunately, various indoor lights perform poorly if at all in this regard. I have field-tested various full spectrum lights, including during my sojourn as Antarctic station doctor at Palmer and McMurdo Stations, and recommend them when sunlight isn't an option.
My intrigue with salt was piqued in 2002 when I read Mark Kurlansky's book Salt: A World History. I initially picked it up out of surprise that the topic could make the New York Times best-seller list.
Since then, sea salts such as those that reside on my cheeks following a morning jog on the beach are another component of my indoor white space. An open bag of Epsom salts can add magnesium and sulfur to the air, and a rock of Himalayan sea salt set on a porcelain plate disperses its minerals. Some people get elaborate and make lamps, foot warmers, and tea-light holders, using warmth to help distribute the salt. Caution should be taken, since salt corrodes. Handheld plastic salt air inhalers are also available.
Recent scientific publications about geomagnetic storms highlight another benefit of the beach. Bare feet in white sand may help us weather geomagnetic storms, the way that people have for millennia before the advent of modern living.
Geomagnetic storms increase the earth's magnetic field and are most familiar to us in the context of aurora in high-latitude regions of earth and for disrupting satellite communication. The same geomagnetic storms influence human health. The magnitude to which geomagnetic storms are temporally linked to stroke, heart attacks, suicides, and acute psychiatric admissions is surprising researchers. For example, epidemiologic data suggest that geomagnetic storms impose the same risk of stroke as postmenopausal hormone therapy.
The following scenario offers a broad risk comparison. During a solar storm, one man is standing on the beach fishing with his bamboo rod the way that he does each morning. His daily sun exposure is moderate and he never gets a burn. His diet is mineral replete and rich in nutrients that discourage the accumulation of magnetizing heavy metals. During the same storm, another man has an office job that seldom allows him to see the light of day. That evening, he takes work home with him. He is slumped on an inner-spring mattress containing metal coils and frame, which can act like antennae, potentially intensifying EMFs. He's working on his laptop encircled by Wi-Fi, remote controls, high EMF-emitting transformers in multiplug outlets, and a digital clock radio. He answers his cell phone between bites of his carry-out dinner.
A clinically relevant question is to apply the Peter Principle: What is the 20% effort that could make the second man's risk 80% similar to the first man's? This question is not as informed by science as would be useful, and that's part of the challenge in sorting through the numerous Internet claims.
For indoor space as close to white sand as possible, I interviewed Scot Appert, a degreed building biologist and environmental consultant who founded Biohealthyhomes.com.
Scot begins consults by avoiding EMF exposure where possible. Since EMFs are invisible, people are often unaware of hazards that they would not be inconvenienced at all to eliminate or reduce, if they only knew about them. He says that finding these exposures often takes a site visit.
Metals to which one can hold a magnet amplify EMFs and should be substituted where possible. This can get pricy if it means getting a new mattress and bed, so simple interventions such as covering the metal with aluminum foil may be the practical interim solution. Instead of in your lap, or staying in physical contact with your notebook computer day after day, using your laptop with a detached keyboard and a monitor can reduce EMF exposure. Experts also suggest getting an extension cord to move the multiplug transformers far enough away from your workspace to drop the EMFs substantially. A few feet of space away from high sources such as these notebook computers and electric device transformers can actually make a noteworthy exposure difference.
Where removal or reduction of EMFs is not possible, neutralizer stickers and plug-ins offered by Aulterra may be of potential benefit. That said, for the time that they have been available, I found comparably little scientific research. Eastern medicine such as Tibetan singing bowls, magnets, yoga, and relaxation techniques may similarly dissipate untoward effects of EMFs and have centuries of history. My favorite approach remains a hug.
Why white space? Those who bring the beach with them into their homes are helping break the allergy-dysmetabolism cycle by clearing the air; restoring sleep; replenishing immune-regulating vitamin D; delivering immune-regulating salts to inflamed linings; and avoiding energy-dissipating, unhealthful electromagnetic forces.
Ingrid Kohlstadt, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACN
Faculty Associate, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Executive Director, NutriBee National Nutrition Competition Inc.
Editor, Advancing Medicine with Food and Nutrients (CRC Press; 2013)