Entering a healthy home is an altogether different experience. What strikes you first is a refreshing sense of harmony and purity, which extends well beyond the body and embraces the soul as well. There is something distinctly rejuvenating about the place: You breathe easier, feel more content and go about your life with heightened energy and enthusiasm. Strange as though it may appear, this does not depend on the technologies the house is endowed with, nor does achieving it necessarily burn a hole in your pocket. In fact, the cost of creating or sustaining such a home pales in comparison with that of the indoor health hazards.
The underlying principle is that what we feel in a space matters just as much as what we see. The human body constantly interacts with various forms of energy surrounding it. The more harmonious this interaction, the greater is one’s physical and mental wellbeing. We spend between 80-95 per cent of our lives indoors. That is why the characteristics of our built environment greatly influence our health and comfort. It follows then, that healthy living spaces are integral to good living.
Often, our physical surroundings depict our mental and emotional disposition. While the ultimate purpose of our built environment is to provide us protection and comfort, not all spaces can be termed completely benign. How we feel when we spend time there can be influenced by several factors such as air quality, temperature, noise, light, ambience, vibes, design, and aesthetic elements. They affect us both physically and psychologically. The hallmarks of a healthy home are purity and simplicity — it is well-ventilated, free of mould, pests, toxins and dangerous gases, dry, clean, and comfortable. We all desire a beautiful home, but sacrificing health and comfort in the name of elegance can extract a serious toll.
“Walking into a modern building can sometimes be compared to placing your head inside a plastic bag filled with toxic fumes,” says John Bower, author of several books on healthy home construction. We all run the risks associated with prolonged exposure to indoor air, which, as studies have repeatedly highlighted, is 2–20 times more polluted than outdoor air. This risk increases when we seal the interior space tightly against air infiltration from outside because any contaminants that are released into the interior air are more likely to stay there. The ill-effects include sick building syndrome, building-related illnesses, asthma and endocrine disorders. It is therefore important to assure some degree of fresh air exchange. A part of the problem also owes itself to our ignorance and misconceptions.
Some of the common chemicals found in various materials we use indoors can have alarming side-effects. While lead damages brain development and cadmium can cause neurological damage and even cancer, organotins are known to suppress immunity, disrupt endocrine system and damage reproductive development. Fibreglass insulation, much like asbestos, is capable of causing lung cancer.
It is critical to carefully review the selection of materials for areas that have the maximum contact with indoor air, such as wall-to-wall carpeting, particleboard cabinets and shelves, paints, sealers, waxes, and furnishings. It is ironical that numerous human inventions meant to boost wellbeing actually undermine health. We owe our temperature-perfect rooms to modern heating and cooling systems, but find ourselves being plagued by colds and allergies.
According to Janie Quinn, author of Essential Environments: Discover How To Create Healthy Living Spaces, “A whopping 80,000 man-made chemicals have been added to our planet during the past 50 years and these chemicals are building up toxins in our bodies and creating disease.” In this context, the act of reducing and eliminating our exposure to the chemicals that are harmful to our health should begin from where we live and work.
One of the things that we come in greatest contact with on a toxic level, according to Janie, is our laundry detergent because we sleep on sheets and wear the clothing. In other words, whatever we use in our laundry rubs off on our skin. She advises that the easiest thing we can do is to replace our laundry detergent with a biodegradable, non-toxic, laundry detergent.”
It is best to change filters in the heating/cooling equipment, use all-natural building materials and fabrics, choose water-based paints and varnishes, and clean frequently with natural solutions such as vinegar or lemon juice. Even ridding our environment of toxins can greatly reduce stress, address allergies and other ailments, boost vitality and foster wellbeing.
Paradise on Earth
“The concept of Nandanvan, or paradise on earth, ought to be reinterpreted in our times.” – NARENDRA Dengle
Veteran architect and conservationist Narendra Dengle talks about the ways in which the design of a space affects the physical and mental wellbeing of the occupant. The 58-year-old, Pune-based Dengle has won several Indian and foreign awards for his works, authored papers for architectural anthologies, and researched, written and anchored a four-part bilingual documentary on architectural appreciation, looking at architecture from such varied standpoints as philosophy, aesthetics, technology and urban design. Here is what he has to say:
“Sense perceptions shape our sensibilities. Mind, which is a part of consciousness, retains memories, which too shape our beliefs and strengthen associations. Memories and perceptions together decide if a place has “good vibes” or otherwise for a person. If the design of physical surroundings is able to recognise this fact, the organisation of a place and its attributes, which are the design elements, can hope to aim for a geeral wellbeing of people. How indoor and outdoor relationship is perceived, how human activity in different places is interpreted, as well as how public space becomes a fusion-space, tension-free space, are some of the key areas for a sensitive designer to explore.
Association with plants, colours, sound, water bodies and their imaginative overlay can bring subtlety into design, which inspires a sense of wonder, curiosity and enquiry. The mundane day-to-day life is confused with stresses of consumerist compulsions in life, ambitious aggressiveness that all marketing effort promotes. Such events in life are linked with moments unregistered by memory and spaces in transition. All of these can be well addressed by a good designer in his work, as they have a direct impact on the physical and psychological wellbeing of society. The concept of nandanvan, or paradise on earth, has prevailed in all civilizations. These ought to be reinterpreted in our times. Invariably these concepts try to bring together the vastness of space and life, with the beauty that the nature on earth offers.
A design can make a statement, which may vary from being fashionable, avant garde, socially relevant, economically sensible or environmentally sympathetic. The more one turns to luxury and indulgence, the worse its effect on the environment. On the other hand, the closer one goes to nature and common wellbeing, the design becomes a bridge between ego-centeredness and universality. Elements of design manifest these attitudes. Natural materials, plenty of protection from the forces of nature, and least dependence on artificial energy sources make a holistic sense, which is both sustainable and rich in experience.”
Mould and moisture
Water-damaged wood, paint, drywall and back of wallpaper are known to host allergenic mould [fungus]. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “All moulds have the potential to cause health effects. Moulds can produce allergens that can trigger allergic reactions or even asthma attacks. Others are known to produce potent toxins and/or irritants.”
Elevated levels of indoor mould can cause allergies, asthma, bleeding lungs, breathing difficulties, cancer, central nervous system problems, recurring colds, chronic coughing, coughing up with blood, chronic dandruff problems, dermatitis, skin rashes, and diarrhoea. They can also cause eye and vision problems, fatigue [chronic, excessive, or continued] and general malaise, flu symptoms, sudden hair loss, headaches, hemorrhagic pneumonitis, hives, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, irritability, itching, kidney problems, learning difficulties or mental dysfunction or personality changes, and memory difficulties.
The best way to prevent mould growth is to check moisture intrusion and allow it to escape. Moisture also attracts cockroaches, rodents and helps dust mites to thrive. Cockroaches shed faeces and skins that can trigger allergic reactions often associated with asthma and other respiratory problems. Effective ventilation is therefore a pre-requisite. Proper ventilation can help reduce the need for mechanical temperature-control mechanisms, which are known to have their side-effects on human beings.
At speeds of 186,000 miles-per-second, high-energy electromagnetic waves bombarding us from computer monitors, portable phones, microwave ovens and several other gadgets of everyday use can be quite a menace. Some scientists suspect that chronic exposure to these man-made electromagnetic fields disrupts the functioning of calcium in the brain. Others say that these electromagnetic frequencies interfere with the growth and reproduction of cells throughout the body.
Care should be taken to place televisions at least five feet away from seating areas because the electrical field generated inside the cathode ray tube can leak out. Computers, printers and copy machines should be placed away from living areas. Sleeping areas should be located as far from electronic equipment as possible. It is best to switch off and unplug all electrical appliances in the bedroom at night or sleep at least four feet away from “live” appliances. Using battery or low-voltage appliances like radios and alarm clocks also helps. Metal bed frames can attract electromagnetic forces and should be avoided.
It is important to identify areas in the house that are particularly visually and energetically stressed. This stress can be corrected by moving things around and establishing a better use of the items within the space.
Much of the problem emanates from cluttering, which can be addictive. As Margaret Paul, the co-creator of “Inner Bonding”, a transformational six-step spiritual healing process, explains, “Clutter is created and maintained by a wounded, frightened part of oneself, the wounded self and the part that operates from the illusion of having control over people, events, and outcomes.”
According to Mike Nelson, author of “Stop Clutter from Stealing Your Life”, cluttering is often a manifestation of issues like ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder], OCD [Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder], anxiety or depressive tendencies. Clutter creates more surfaces for dust to gather. De-cluttering therefore not only frees up space and organises the environment better, but also shifts into higher states of consciousness and functioning. It is only by eschewing vanity and excess that we can create a space that feels expansive. According to research by Global Healing Centre, having clutter can make you feel tired and lethargic, affect your body weight, can confuse you, and make you feel ashamed.
Nearly two-thirds of the dust in our homes is tracked in from outdoors. This can be discouraged by designing entryway systems to help remove dust from our shoes before we bring them inside. Dust also comes from outdoor particles that are drawn in through heating and ventilation systems or air leakage, and from dust mites residing inside our homes. Filters for heating, ventilation and air-cooling systems can also reduce dust particles in the home. In a country like India where it is virtually impossible to keep out dust, it is best to build homes with smooth and cleanable materials that facilitate cleaning.
Lighting – natural as well as artificial – plays a crucial role in our physical and mental wellness. Both harsh, overly bright lighting, and dark, dingy spaces can be oppressive. The brightness and quality of light influence our moods and atmosphere. It is well known that the absence of daylight or access to the full-colour spectrum of the sun’s rays results in undesirable physiological symptoms by way of SAD [seasonal affective disorder]. While copious natural lighting helps us establish our vital connection with nature, artificial light giving off an imbalanced colour range of the spectrum can cause headaches, eyestrain, loss of energy and nausea. Flickering fluorescent tubes can interfere with the vibrations of the human body, causing hyperactivity and irritability.
Different colours of light also influence us differently. While blue light soothes and cools, green helps relax and speeds up the body’s healing mechanism. Orange can help combat depression, whereas pink helps relax muscles. While red is arousing, violet can harmonise our mental and emotional state and is excellent for meditation.
The colour of a room has a direct influence on our mood, efficiency and wellbeing. In choosing the right colour for a space, we must look at whether that colour befits the function of the room in terms of providing the appropriate stimulus or soothing effect. It is well known that different colours trigger different physiological and emotional responses. Like blue can be soothing and lower the blood pressure, green can induce restfulness, yellow can create excitement, and red can increase the heart rate. A soft, neutralised palette using a progression of primary and secondary colours helps meditative activities. It is believed that individual organs of the human body are also affiliated with colour wavelengths.
This is because colour is a form of energy, a life force made up of electromagnetic wavelengths that can be measured by frequency. The more powerful the frequency, more powerful is the colour. When this natural order of colour is used in the design of interior spaces, a harmonious sensation occurs, which, in turn, positively affects the health and wellbeing of those interacting with the space. Random choices of colours can unsettle the occupants physically and emotionally. According to research conducted by Catherine Cumming, author of Colour Healing Home: Improve Your Well-Being and Your Home Using Colour Therapy, “Colour can alter moods, influence behaviour, and even cause physical reactions — like raising blood pressure or suppressing appetite. People are more likely to lose their tempers in a yellow room. Babies also seem to cry more in a yellow room. This colour tends to create feeling of frustration and anger in people. This colour is the most fatiguing on the eyes. For instance, the colour red stimulates the body by raising the breathing rate, blood pressure, and heart rate, while light blue and dark green have the opposite effect.”
Our state of mind determines the mood of our living spaces. Art, beauty, music, plants, scents and candles have been proven to have beneficial effects on us and are excellent tools to harmonise our living spaces.
Experts aver that it is best to display articles that radiate a positive bio-field useful for balanced health and mental condition. It is therefore best to avoid, for instance, hunting trophies like skins and horns of the killed animals or pictorial representations of friction or melancholy, no matter how beautiful they look.
Music is known to stimulate brainwaves. While fast beats make the mind more awake, alert and sharp, slow music helps calm the brain, breathing and heart rate, thereby bringing the body to a more relaxed state and alleviating the feelings of anxiety and depression. Music in the morning prepares us better for the day, music through the day helps us take our minds off the seeming enormity of our tasks and targets, and music at bedtime aids better sleep. What’s more, music during mealtime helps our bodies digest food better by inducing the body to reduce the levels of cortisol [stress hormone] and facilitating better absorption of the nutrients in our food.
Besides their nice looks, plants also release oxygen in the air and can be curative. We have known about the healing properties of the likes of basil or cardamom that contain disinfecting action. Some pottery plants such as geranium and lavender can calm the nervous system, remove a headache and normalise blood circulation. Flowers are great detoxifying instruments and can effectively nullify the harmful effects of synthetic materials used indoors. Garden geranium and spider plants can clear air and absorb smells.
Lighting a candle can elevate your mood. Besides, as New Age author Sylvia Browne writes in Light a Candle, “Each time you light a candle with love in your heart, you increase your love of God, self-awareness, and spirituality.” Scented ingredients have added to the potential of candles to make one’s environment delightful and stress-free. But beware: Candles made of synthetic toxic chemicals can end up causing allergies, headaches, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder [ADHD] and ADD. Never burn them in completely closed environments. To evoke a deep sense of serenity, we can also try using wind chimes, indoor fountains, fragrant flowering plants, the music of bubbling brook, and herbs and natural oils that waft subtle aromas known for their medicinal powers.
In a nutshell
For a healthier body, we must free our home from toxins; arrange furnishings and storage for comfort and ease; remove bulky, dust-collecting cushions; vent moisture for damp rooms, and create special places for exercise and relaxation. For a healthier psyche, we need to clear away clutter; let in the sun; choose mood-enhancing colours; grow fragrant herbs, and fill rooms with soothing sounds. For a healthier soul, we should provide quiet places for reflection; replace throwaways with keepsakes; strive for simplicity and moderation, and bring nature indoors. Much of what makes for a healthy home can only be sensed and is a matter of creating the required harmony. It is never too late to turn our living space into a serene oasis where health and happiness flourish. By being a little more conscientious about the way we lay out our rooms, the materials and colours we use and the lifestyle choices we make, it is possible to make house our true sanctuary and inspiration. and do so healthfully!
This was first published in the April 2008 of Complete Wellbeing.