This is a guest post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and helps thousands of people take charge of their own health with his company Nature Builds Health.
I know what you’re thinking: “if I’m just very faithful to my dietary regimen and exercise program my health will take care of itself”.
Because that’s the pattern you’re seeing on television, right? Whether you watch “The Biggest Loser”, the Crossfit Games, or the Dr. Oz show, 95% of the discussion revolves around diet and exercise.
Sure, supplements are also widely promoted but most often that’s done to make up for dietary shortcomings.
Hence, the belief that’s installed in your head is that you only need to optimize these domains to attain perfect health.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In this blog post, I claim that overwhelming scientific evidence exists that your environment is important to your overall health as well.
I’ll look at four different areas of your environment:
- 1The light around you, coming from the sun and artificial light
- 2The sound in your environment, which is potentially transformed in annoying “noise”
- 3The temperature of the place you’re spending time in, whether that’s in an airconditioned building or outside in the wintertime
- 4The air you breathe - which can either heal you or set you up for disease
Other areas exist as well, which Michael has extensively written about. One such area is the “non-native electromagnetic frequencies” (nnEMF) in your environment. Another source is bacterial infections, such as H. pylori, which are an outside force acting on the body.
Of course, not everyone is going to be affected by these environmental stimuli the same way. If your in poorer health, in general, you will be more adversely affected by nnEMF - stemming from smartphones, WiFi, “smart” meters, and cell towers.
The bright side?
I’ll give you several foolproof strategies to optimize your environment for the better. So let’s get started with the journey of creating the healthy environment.
1. The Light in Your Healthy Environment
During that time, your ancestors arose with the sun in the morning and went to bed four hours after sunset (on average) (3). The day and night rhythm of your ancestors was thus tied to sunlight.
And contrary to what many people expect, sunlight does indeed exert biological effects on the human body (4; 5; 6). Why? Well, the sun emits a combination of 1) infrared; 2) visible, and 3) ultraviolet light.
To understand the difference between these light types, imagine the following: infrared light is what makes your body heat up and what makes sunlight feel “hot” when you’re exposed. Visible light consists of all the colors of the rainbow and is the only type of light you can actually observe. Ultraviolet light is what potentially gives you sunburns.
All three types of light also have their own unique benefits:
Now, let’s explore that effect of visible light in more detail.
People are exposed to bright lights 24-7 in today’s society. Smartphones, tablets, television screens, and artificial lights put out unprecedented amounts of bright light 24-7.
But recall that your ancestors went to bed a couple of hours after sunset. The reason for that timing is that in the absence of bright light exposure, your body creates a hormone called “melatonin” (16; 17).
Two types of light are specifically responsible for that effect: 1) blue light; 2) green light. Both types of light can be found in the visible light spectrum.
How does that effect occur?
Simple: with darkness, your brain normally creates melatonin. Blue and green light - whether that’s coming from sunlight or artificial light - signal to your body that it’s daytime and suppresses these melatonin levels.
And sure, your human ancestors were exposed to moonlight and that of fire at nighttime as well (18; 19). However, fire only emits red and infrared light, which both don’t suppress melatonin. Moonlight is very weak and hardly has an effect at all.
For all intents and purposes, the effect of both light types is negligible. You may thus assume that your ancestors lived in absolute darkness at nighttime.
You may think now: “okay, great. But I’m never going to stop watching television or turn off all lights at nighttime.
My answer is “very good” - because you don’t have to! The solution to light exposure at night is very simple: wear blue-blocking glasses after sunset, and both blue and green light no longer enters your eyes.
Now, the topic of optimizing the light in your environment is enormously complex. In addition to blocking artificial light at night, I also recommend getting sunlight exposure early during the day as well as during noon.
Early morning time exposure tells your body it’s daytime, and noon exposure builds vitamin D if your skin is exposed. Don’t wear sunscreen or sunglasses if you’re out in the sun - but make sure you don’t overexpose yourself either. Slowly build up sun tolerance, and get out before you think you’ve had enough to prevent sunburn.
If you’d like to learn more about the role of lighting and how to create a healthy environment, read my blog posts about the benefits of sunlight exposure (or using red light therapy to get some of the benefits of sunlight exposure if you’re sitting inside all day).
Lastly, let’s just explore one domain in relation to your light exposure: artificial light at night. With artificial light at night exposure you’ll:
Don’t like these effects? Then avoid bright light exposure to your eyes at nighttime.
Sure, it’s a shift to wear blue-blocking glasses at nighttime. But sometimes such shifts are necessary for society as a whole to change. Remember that it used to be very normal to smoke inside buildings - even if children were present. The fact that something is “normal” and accepted by the majority of society does not mean that it’s healthy.
Exposing your eyes to bright light at night thus undermines your health - even though almost everyone is doing it.
So let’s move on to another related topic - a source of major annoyance for some people.
2. Sound and Noise Pollution
You probably know this situation:
But no worries: no harm is done, right? You’re just a bit annoyed, but it’s not that the cats or airplanes reduce your sleep quality, correct?
Well, unfortunately, noise does affect your overall health.
(For simplicity sake, I’ll define noise as a sound that is interpreted as “unpleasant”, either consciously or subconsciously by the human brain.)
So let’s explore some of the consequences of noise in the environment.
Sleep disturbances, in turn, are associated with all kinds of (medical) problems, such as poor sleep quality, increased risk for modern diseases such as heart conditions or diabetes, more fatigue during the day, poorer cognitive performance, and lowered well-being (33; 34).
In fact, noise is the most damaging if you’re exposed at nighttime. The reason is that you don’t notice waking up in the middle of the night, even though your sleep quality is significantly reduced.
In biology, noise is often a signal of impending danger. For that reason, your human body immediate starts releasing stress hormones such as “cortisol” and “adrenaline” if you’re exposed. Annoyance, stress, and higher blood pressure are also common consequences. What’s even more shocking is that blood glucose levels, as well as gut bacteria makeups, are altered by noise in animal studies (39; 40).
Now you know why you’re very likely to develop a habit of studying in a library or silent room, instead of a train station or a club. Noise distracts you from the task at hand and also impedes learning - in part because of the stress that is induced.
Hence, your ability to learn new things dramatically goes down, as well as your performance on any activity that requires high-level (abstract) thinking. Unfortunately, the quantity of scientific evidence in this area is still limited - although your intuition to perform high-level thinking skills in a silent environment is probably very valid.
The simplest way to summarize the effect of noise is that it’s a chronic low-level stressor which continually creates stress hormones that keep your body (over)activated.
The worst part?
Noise is literally everywhere in today’s society, destroying your healthy environment.
In nature, sound levels of 20 - 40 Decibels are common (43). In cities, on the contrary, decibel levels of 50-95 are pretty regular (44; 45; 46; 47). Even during the nighttime, sound levels can approximate a whopping 50 - 65 decibels (45; 47).
You may think: “well, there’s not THAT much of a difference between 40 and 80, right? Sound levels only double!”The problem is that the decibel (dB) scale is logarithmic. An increase of 10 dB denotes a 10-fold increase in sound levels. Hence a 40 dB increase in sound signifies a 10,000-fold increase in sound level.
Now you’re hopefully getting why excessive sound can be very problematic. The increasing levels of background noise have been aptly called “noise pollution”.
To create a healthy environment and reduce noise, begin with some earplugs. if you’re exposed to wildly excessive noise (especially for the nighttime), make sure that your home is as airtight as possible (which prevent noise from entering the building), and install some acoustic panels in rooms you spend a lot of time in.
Want to know more?
In that case, consider my guide on sound and noise pollution in modern cities. In that guide, I supply you with 10 different strategies to counter the problem, as well as a much deeper understanding of the issue.
Let’s move on to the third domain of this blog post.
3. Environmental Temperature: The Lost Winters?
Modern indoor environments are very comfortable. Not only are most people heating the building they’re spending time in to 21 degrees Celsius (~70F), air conditioning also keeps temperatures stable during the summertime.
That Ice age story goes back a couple of million years - but the full story starts about 66 million years ago.
So let’s take a small detour:
The earth emitted unimaginable amounts of matter into the air because of the meteor impact. The substances in the air prevented sunlight from fully penetrating the atmosphere, thereby lowering the temperature on the surface of the planet.
Dinosaurs are cold-blooded and had relied upon the infrared light of the sun to keep them warm, but that light was no longer available in sufficient quantities. Most dinosaurs subsequently went extinct while mammals found a new niche to thrive in.
Mammals - which you are too - are warm-blooded and can regulate their own body temperature.
In humans, several organs accomplish the regulation of body temperature. I’ll only focus on one area here: brown and beige body fat.
You actually carry several types of body fat. The white fat - or “adipose tissue” - is mainly found around your organs, belly, and hips (53; 54; 55). The main role of white body fat is to act as a store of calories for challenging times, although it has hormonal functions as well.
Brown fat specifically contains tons of ‘mitochondria”. Mitochondria can be understood as the “energy-producing factories” of your cells. The more and bigger mitochondria you have in your body - such as in your muscles and brown body fat - the more energy you can use and burn.
So white body fat, which you primarily carry around your waist, hips, organs, can be used as an energy source for that brown body fat.
White fat can specifically be burned for heat generation. To increase the need for heat generation you’ll have to expose yourself to cold.
(Michael has previously written about the Wim Hof method as well, who integrates cold into his methodology.)
It’s possible to build your brown fat deposits through training, just like you can train your muscles in the gym. The only thing you need for that result is to expose yourself consistently to cold.
Cold showers and ice baths are traditional methods of cold exposure - both are amazing for health improvements when they’re applied to the right person at the right time.
A much-undervalued method of integrating cold into your life, however, is to lower the thermostat (59; 60; 61). It’s very probable that cold exposure is most important seasonally - i.e. when it’s cold outside in the fall and winter months.
By lowering the thermostat gradually you’re increasing your body’s need to regulate its temperature and increase the burning of white body fat by its brown counterpart. As a result, you’ll build brown body fat over time.
Carrying brown fat has many health benefits. In general, you carry most brown body fat if you’re younger - deposits slowly decline with age.
Carrying more brown body fat increases the insulin sensitivity of several tissues while decreasing that of body fat - meaning that carbohydrates are more prone stored at the right places (62; 63; 64). Body fat levels also decline while resting metabolic rate increases (62; 63).
Cold exposure can also dramatically increase neurotransmitter levels, such as adrenaline and dopamine (65).
Neurotransmitters are brain signaling substances that are integral to your mood and cognitive abilities. Adrenaline keeps you awake, for example, while dopamine makes you motivated, assertive, and stimulates abstract thinking capabilities.
Of course, the health context of the individual is key in determining whether cold exposure should be prescribed. Michael has written extensively about imbalances in neurotransmitters and offers testing in the form of an “Organic Acid Test” to observe how you’re doing in that department.
I hope you’re beginning to see that by entering civilization, humans have not only lost their diet and exercise regimen (over time). Instead, your ancestors also lost their patterns of light, sound, and temperature exposure.
If you’d like to integrate cold into your life, experiment with slowly lowering the thermostat over the wintertime. Don’t experiment with very cold temperatures at nighttime though - I’ve tried that, resulting in horrendous effects on my sleep quality.
When integrating cold into your life, it’s best to experience some cold during the daytime, and sleep in a warm environment (but not too warm) at night.
Let’s now move on to one last topic in relation to building a healthy environment: Air.
4. Healthy Air: Still Underappreciated by Almost Everyone
Most people are aware that the air is polluted. You may too. And yet, you may not think that you can do anything about that situation.
Additionally, you may think that air does not have that big of an effect on your overall health. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.
Let’s look at some statistics:
Every year, 6-7 million people die prematurely because of air pollution (66; 67). What’s even worse is that these estimates are the lowest. Some estimates, in fact, attribute 9-10 million deaths to breathing polluted air every single year.
And sure, most air pollution occurs in China, India, and African countries. In China, industrial air pollution is the main culprit - in India and Africa, indoor cooking is mostly to blame.
If you’re living in Europe or the US, however, you’re not fully safe either. Every year in the US, 200,000 people die prematurely because of air pollution (68).
Remember that almost 3,000 people were killed on September 11, 2001, which is 1/66th part of the number of people killed every single year due to air pollution. New estimates in Europe also assume that about 800,000 people die every year because of breathing toxic air (69; 70).
Perception is thus not always correct. Just because the news doesn’t continually talk about the toxic effects of polluted air doesn’t mean that no harm is done. The tragedy of the situation is precise that the topic is not discussed in much greater intensity and detail.
Let’s take one air pollutant: particulate matter.
The number here denotes the size of the particulate matter in micrometers. So PM10 particles have a size of 10 micrometers in diameter and smaller - equalling 1/100th of a millimeter.
You cannot see such particles with your naked eye, and yet, these particles do have huge effects on your overall health. In fact, particulate matter not only ends up in your lungs but also enters your bloodstream and can travel to your brain through your nose (potentially via brain nerves) (74; 75; 76; 77).
And it’s not particulate matter alone that’s damaging - many air pollutants such as toxic mold, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and radon can have damaging effects (78; 79; 80; 81; 82).
The combined exposure of such air pollutants is exponentially more dangerous than exposure to one toxin in isolation.
But let’s return to the aforementioned particulate matter: industry, traffic, and energy plants are the main causes for the creation of that pollutant. Nature herself is also a source of particulate matter - deserts can carry PM10 for hundreds of miles and affect your lungs.
Nonetheless, it’s the finer particulate matter such as PM2.5 and PM0.1 that’s most dangerous because your airways have a hard time filtering these out.
And don’t get me wrong: I’m not preaching doom and gloom. Instead, my message is quite optimistic: you can create a healthy environment and reduce your exposure to air pollutants by over 95% - even if you’re living in a city.
One simple means by which you can cut your exposure is by using a high-quality air purifier inside your home. Other tips are to exercise in nature instead of in the polluted city, and avoiding the most polluted places in the city as well as rush hours.
Avoiding rush hour and downtown areas (especially between skyscrapers which trap pollutants in an area) can also cut your exposure in half.
Easy? No. Simple? Sure!
Again, if you’d like to learn more about how to live in a healthy environment and reduce air pollution, read my extensive guide about the health effects of air pollution. In that guide I consider 15 different air pollutants as well as many additional strategies to lower your exposure levels.
Moral of the story?
I hope you get the fundamental idea by now: a healthy environment is a prerequisite for building optimal health. So let’s consider the implications of that statement and conclude.
5. Conclusion: Shape Your Environment Today to Move the Needle into the Right Direction
Taking your environment into account really leads to a paradigm change in understanding health.
“Paradigm changes” are fundamental changes in how science understands a certain part of the world.
Medicine studies the human body, and for far too long that body was studied in isolation. That sentiment is accurately captured in Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, in which catching a germ automatically leads to disease.
Although the quote is falsely attributed to Pasteur, he is said to have recanted that germ theory of disease on his deathbed, stating that the environment in which an organism lives is more fundamental for health instead.
Despite the misattribution, the quote is wholly true.
In an unhealthy environment, you’re far more susceptible to disease than in a healthy one. A healthy environment, on the contrary, makes improving your health very easy. Disease-causing germs can be combated very easily if your environment supports health.
Fortunately, many of the ways in which your environment affects your health have been laid out in great detail in this blog post. So block that blue light at night, wear earplugs if there’s excessive sound at night, get an air purifier, and expose yourself to some cold in the wintertime.