Nutritionist Clare Backhouse looks at how environmental factors can affect our wellbeing
Health isn’t just about the food we eat– or don’t eat. It’s also about the environment we live in, the objects we use and the habits we have. So a loving approach to our health will involve caring for the location we’re in and stewarding our surroundings wisely.
For example, we all know that cigarette smoking affects people’s health – so much so that it was banned from public spaces in the UK in 2007. But did you know that mouldy areas in your house can trigger inflammation in your gut, or even thyroid dysfunction? Or that substances in your plastic water bottle may trigger or worsen not only hormone imbalances, but also cardiovascular health issues?
I am not saying any of this to scare you. As we know, “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18) and in these articles we’re focusing on how to approach health from the standpoint of love! But I do hope to offer you some useful shortcuts. After all, it took over 50 years after the first scientific studies demonstrated smoking’s ill-effects, for the UK to implement an effective public smoking ban. And there are many other harmful pollutants in our world that are yet to be addressed on such a large scale.
But before we go into the details of those environmental challenges, I want to point out the incredible patience it took for health campaigners eventually to achieve the UK’s smoking ban.
Many of us will know the scripture, popular at weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). I am struck by how simple and humble these attributes are.
Patience is generally hard work. And it’s not generally a visible, active kind of work, but hidden. The kind of work that quietly, doggedly pursues the best for people and doesn’t give up when things are tough. So if our attitude to health is going to be shaped by love, not anxiety, then I believe patience and kindness will be part of the experience.
We’ll need patience to find out what is the real cause of persistent health issues. We’ll need patience to make food that nourishes, and to keep plodding forward with habits that ultimately bring life. And we need to be kind, not harsh, to ourselves and others when we – or they – are struggling.
How our bodies respond to damp
One great reason to be kind about health is that we are all unique and therefore can react differently to the exact same environments.
For example, you could have two healthy people living in a damp and mouldy house. One of them might come down with respiratory problems, allergies, gut symptoms or a dodgy thyroid. The other might remain a picture of health.
Kindness would be required to attend seriously to the person who falls ill and not dismiss them as ‘hypochondriac’, just because the other person remains healthy.
Mouldy areas in your house can trigger inflammation in your gut, or even thyroid dysfunction
In a damp house, a frequently water-logged or poorly ventilated area can become a breeding ground for mould. Mould is everywhere, but it can only take root in susceptible environments.
Once you have mould growing, it releases airborne spores that, when breathed in, can cause toxins called mycotoxins to proliferate in the body. Some people are genetically predisposed to excrete these toxins easily. Others have difficulty getting rid of them.
Mycotoxins may worsen an existing physical problem by placing an extra burden on the liver and gut’s elimination processes. This in turn can increase problems like gut bacteria imbalances, or autoimmunity or respiratory difficulties.
If our attitude to health is going to be shaped by love, patience and kindness will be part of the experience
Other ‘household factors’ that can affect our health include the chemicals found in air fresheners and cleaning, beauty and skincare products, all of which have to be broken down and dealt with by the liver, and some of which can cause hormonal imbalances.
Hormonal imbalances can also be caused by plastic, which I mentioned above. Plastic used as water bottles, food containers and as lining material for food tins can all leach a variety of disruptive chemicals into the body.
Recently, research has discovered micro- plastics carried by immune cells in the human bloodstream, raising questions about the impact of plastics on the immune system.
So what can be done?
How do we love ourselves into health, taking all this into consideration?
Well, I avoid plastic bottled water because of its environmental impact, but I’m staying away because of its health impact. I carry around a battered, stainless steel water bottle instead.
We can pursue a low-plastic approach to our household, too, storing and heating food in non- plastic materials like Pyrex, ceramics, stainless steel or baking paper.
Reducing chemicals may also reduce costs. Local bulk shops can often refill old spray cleaner bottles with low-toxin stuff. White vinegar and non- food-grade bicarbonate of soda are inexpensive and can tackle most cleaning.
For skincare and hygiene, the Environmental Working Group website (ewg.org) provides checklists of ingredients to avoid, alongside toxicity grading for well-known products.
Finally, we can avoid the build-up of household mould by keeping every space dry and well- ventilated, especially bathrooms and kitchens, and dealing speedily with any leaks or water damage.
If you suspect any serious mould build-up, get it removed by a specialist who’ll get to the root cause and not just give it a wipe and a coat of paint.
All of these actions may require patience and a choice to be kind to ourselves and others, rather than just do what’s convenient or familiar. But ultimately it’s about loving ourselves and others well. I hope you will enjoy reaping the benefits.