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Why The Environment Is An Underappreciated Key To Understanding Human Health

Why myopic health advice that only focuses on food and exercise is devastating.

You and I both live in a reductionist age.

10-Second soundbites are awarded more attention than the deepest and more incredible in-depth complexities.

A cat video may get 10 million views, while Nobel Prize Laureates are delighted with 10 thousand views for their lectures.

Complexity is frequently avoided nowadays, and that’s a dangerous development.

And “eat less; exercise more” best captures the 10-second soundbite of the health industry. The statement is so often repeated on television and on trendy websites, that it must be true right?

You’re 100 pounds Overweight? Solution: “eat less, exercise more!”

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Oversimplified advice and poor choices can and will hurt your health–and by respecting complexity builds your health to a better level than ever before!

Albert Einstein once said that “everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler”

So let’s level up your health, and find out why “eat less and exercise more” is not a panacea:

Why Your Environment Is Essential To Your Health

In this blog post I’ll give you three different examples explain why your environment matters if you pursue optimal health:

1) Sunlight (and the absence thereof) has set your body’s day and night rhythm for millions of years. That rhythm affects almost every process in your body.
2) The air you breathe is of tremendous importance to your overall health–and yet, billions of people still breathe toxic air today.
3) Noise pollution is an increasing problem that can cause chronic stress and leave you sleepless at night.

I’ll now go over these three domains one by one.

You’ll learn that all these areas can massively affect your health, even though they don’t have anything to do with “eat less, exercise more”.

First, Sunlight Controls The Timing And Energy Flow Of Your Body’s Cells

The human body contains trillions of cells. All of these cells go through a daily cycle. Yin and yang are a good analogy to capture that process.

Your eyes and skin are key to understanding how sunlight works. For millions of years, the eyes and skin of your ancestors were exposed to sunlight during the daytime and an absence thereof at nighttime.

When sunlight hits your eyes, it signals to your brain to get many bodily processes started for the day. A brain area called the “suprachiasmatic nucleus”, located near the hypothalamus, thereby acts as the main clock of your body.

That main clock keeps the time inside your body. Sunlight exposure through the eyes at 6 AM (or later) thus tells your brain that morning time has arrived.

Almost all cells in your body also have a clock themselves – these are called “peripheral clocks”. The peripheral clocks need to be in sync with the main clock in your brain.

Now, remember yin and yang? The timing of that yin and yang process is off for many people because they’re no longer exposed to bright light during the daytime.

Many people are yin all the time, or yang…

Why?

Simple:

Most modern humans avoid sunlight. If you’re sitting inside all day, your brain thus never receives a strong signal to get started for the day.

Sunlight, moreover, is also necessary to build certain brain signaling substances, such as “dopamine”. Dopamine makes you motivated and assertive.

Avoiding sunlight thus throws your entire biology out of balance.

The light in your environment has many other consequences for your health:

Winter depression? Lack of sunlight exposure.

Feeling tired and having low energy levels? Lack of sunlight exposure.

Taking four hours to get started with your day? Once again: lack of sunlight exposure.

Keep in mind that I’m oversimplifying here. Sunlight has so many additional benefits beyond creating vitamin D that it’s had to fathom. You can read about these benefits on my blog.

The flipside of that claim is that you need darkness at night.

Your ancestors only used campfires for nighttime lighting. Before 800,000 BC, humans probably didn’t intentionally control fire, so no nighttime lighting except moonlight was available.

Darkness is absolutely necessary to build a hormone called “melatonin”. The eye is once again key here. If your eyes are not exposed to any blue and green light for some time, a hormone called “melatonin” builds up in your brain.

Melatonin helps you sleep quickly, deep, and stay asleep.

The problem? 99,9% of modern humans expose their eyes to artificial light at night, stemming from smartphones, television screens, billboard, artificial light bulbs, billboards, and more.

Almost 50% of people also sleep poorly at night and don’t wake up refreshed.

The result of that nightly light exposure is that sleep quality declines dramatically. Before 1879 humans did not have any artificial light that emits blue or green light: candles an oil lamps emit red light, which does not lower your melatonin levels.

The solution?

Wear blue- blocking glasses. Blue-blocking glasses are tinted red, and thereby block all incoming blue and green light from entering your eyes.

(Of course, also ensure that you get some sunlight exposure during the day, to tell your body it’s time to wake up.)

With sunlight and blue-blockers the main clock in your brain and the trillions of clocks in your cells will run at the same time – better health being the end result.

The bottom line?

Blocking blue and green light at night, and getting sunlight during the day optimizes the daily the yin and yang, the ebb and flow in your body’s cells. Your wake-sleep cycle, hormonal function, energy product, and many other processes are tied to that process.

Let’s now move on to the second domain:

Air Pollution, Secondly, Is Not A Dead Artefact Of The 19th Century–It’s Alsive Instead

Air pollution is still killing millions of people each year.

That’s right.

You may also have noticed that cities are growing bigger than ever. Most air pollution is actually created in cities and thus spread around civilized areas.

Now, hundreds of different air pollutants exist, ranging from particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and many more.

Don’t try to remember these names–realize instead that air pollution can hurt you.

Let’s say you’ve got heart disease. In that case, many people recommend improving your diet or adding more cardio to your exercise regimen.

(Again: “eat less, exercise more”)

But what is air pollution is the root cause of your problems? For simplicity sake, I’ll focus on an example of just one air pollutant: particulate matter.

Particulate matter consists of extremely tiny particles that are invisible to the human eye, which you breathe in. Once particulate matter ends up in your body, it is taken up in your lungs and transferred to the bloodstream.

Industry and traffic are the main sources of that particulate matter.

The smaller the particulate matter is, the more damaging. The smallest types of particulate matter (PM 0.1 for nerds), can travel directly to your brain after entering your nose.

The health of your heart and blood vessels is also negatively affected by particulate matter. Particulate matter additionally increases stress hormone levels, which indirectly decreases heart health.

Many people know that chronic stress is bad for your heart. What many people don’t know is that particulate matter is a kind of “chronic stress”, because many people are exposed to particulate matter 24 hours a day 365 days a year.

And while legislation has lowered the amount of particulate matter in the environment, tens of thousands of people are still directly dying because of this air pollutant in the US and EU every single year.

Solution?

Move out of the city?

Not at all…

One solution is to install air purifiers in rooms you’re spending a lot of time in – in many cities, indoor air is up to a shocking 10 times as polluted as outdoor air.

Other solutions include avoiding rush hours, not spending too much time in the busiest parts of the cities, and using vegetation both inside and outside the home to prevent these particles from entering the place you’re spending most time at.

No need to take a fatalist attitude: your exposure levels can be decreased by 90-95% with the right strategies – even in polluted cities!

Making sure you breathe clean air can add years to your life.

So let’s return to the example I gave: remember the person with heart disease? What if that person was getting sick because of particulate matter, and going for more weekly runs (in polluted air) were going to increase their risk for heart problems?

You see, when you’re working out, you breathe up to ten times the number of pollutants compared to when you’re watching television.

Circumstances thus matter.

10-Second soundbites do no justice to that process.

So let’s move to one last example:

Thirdly, Noise Pollution Is Truly Underappreciated, And Yet, Can Be Really Devastating

Overflying airplanes…

A busy road.

Screaming neighbors.

A loud party across the street.

All these instances can keep you up at night, but also make you really stressed throughout the day. Noise is a big health problem even though many people don’t understand the depth of the issue.

Noise is, just like air pollution, a problem intrinsically associated with modern life and cities. Why? Simple: sound levels can be 1000-fold or more as high in cities compared to rural areas.

Even at nighttime, noise levels can be extremely high in cities, keeping you from your well-earned rest. Almost 10% of the EU’s population, for example, is exposed to more than 50 decibels (dB) of sound at nighttime.

For sleep, less than 30 dB is optimal. The dB scale is logarithmic, with every 10 dB increase signifying a 10-fold increase.

Even at night, sounds levels are 100-fold higher than they should be for ~50 million people.

50 dB of sound is about the level of a regular conversation. To put that noise level into perspective: what if someone was continually talking next to your bed while you’re trying to sleep?

You’d become an insomniac…

Noise causes quicker aging at the cellular level of your body and increases stress hormone levels just like air pollution does.

So let’s return to the example of the example of the earlier heart disease patient: what if that person couldn’t sleep at night because they were living close to an airport, experiencing a whopping 70dB of sound in the room a few times per hour?

70dB equals 10,000 times the safe sound level of sleep.

If that person got their heart disease, would it do them justice to tell them to “eat less and exercise more”, even though the extremely poor sleep is causing all of their issues?

Of course not…

And the light you’re exposed to, the air you’re breathing, and sound in your environment are not the only environmental domains that affect your health.

The amount of electromagnetic frequencies stemming from WiFi routers, smartphones, IoT devices, smart meters, and cell towers, for example, has been growing exponentially for decades now.

Since the end of 2017 scientific evidence has emerged that guidelines for electromagnetic radiation may be too lenient.

You get the point by now. The environment in which you live matters. So let’s conclude:

Conclusion: Respect Your Environment And Avoid Oversimplification

Hopefully, I’ve demonstrated the upside of taking your environment into account in improving and maintaining optimal health.

I’m not saying “eat less and exercise more” is always wrong, as many people also need to eat better food and need to move more. Oversimplified solutions, however, do no justice to people who have real health problems.

One last example:

If you’re chronically stressed, sound or air pollution may cause that problem.

But chronic stress may also be caused by simple psychological reasons. In that case, eating less and exercising more will also make you less capable to deal with the problems causing the stress.

The solution in that instance is to start meditating, for example, or to develop an evening routine that fully allows you to relax.

10-Second soundbites rarely respect the complexity of health issues, and I’ve hopefully demonstrates why that is the case.

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