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Happiness and Indoor Air Quality

Uncategorized Mar 23, 2021

Hello, and thanks for joining me this week for The Mould Show. I've got a really interesting topic today, and that is:

What is the connection between indoor air quality and mood or happiness?

I thought this would be a really important episode to discuss today because there is increasing literature focus on mental health and wellbeing. And this is really important because people who are suffering from water damage and mould often are really angry about the circumstances that they find themselves in. There's some wonderful emerging literature that is talking precisely about the relationship of indoor air quality and mood and specifically happiness. So today we're going to be talking about indoor air quality and happiness. I want to give you a bit of context for this and an example of where I see this all the time.

Last week, I was called out to do a water damage and a frame inspection of a couple's new home that was undergoing construction. Now, it was already five months late. The husband and wife met me outside their property. And the man told me that although his wife was there, she couldn't set foot on the property that was to be their new home because she was just so upset. I saw her, but she spent most of the time down the street and never once in over two hours that I was there did she set foot on their property. Now, why is this relevant to you?

Well, I want to make the very clear connection that the environment that we're exposed to has a huge impact on how we feel. And how we feel, although that's subjective, it's very real to the individual. There is, as I said, a lot of research, which is looking into this. So today I want to summarize some of the key papers that have come out recently that have been measuring happiness and various other moods and linking this with indoor air quality.

Now, what do I mean by indoor air quality? Well, anyone who follows The Mould Show knows that I like to focus on Mould. But mould, when we think about this is visible mould, usually after water damage, but what about the whole other range of environmental toxins that can occur? We're all familiar with haze and smoke particles, for example, after a fire, all of this contributes to air quality. And think of air quality as all of the different particles or the particulate matter that we're breathing in and that settles out onto our clothes and into our homes. So air quality really comes down to measuring the quantum of particles that are in our air space. And when we do this, air can be defined using two parameters and they're officially called PM2.5 and PM10.

PM2.5 are the very small particles. The particulate matter under 2.5 microns. And then the mid to larger size range is the PM10. And that is up to 10 microns in diameter.

When studies are done in urban environments, like in this paper, which we're going to summarize, and I'm going to provide the links in the show notes, there's some very elegant connections made between exposure to PM2.5 and people's perception of wellbeing. And again, there are also some really interesting apps that are being linked with air quality sensors to allow these very subjective experiments to be done to provide some great objective data. I'm going to jump straight to some of the results.

In this study that was done with 371 people, over 26,000 responses were tracked and they measured the PM2.5 levels in the airspace. Now you can see on the X axis that as the concentration of PM2.5 increases, the measure of happiness decreases. And this is really important to recognize this point. You can see in the companion graph next to happiness, that as the concentration of PM2.5 increases, that is as the cumulative amount of particles increases, the levels of stress increase. And you can also see in the bottom, that as the concentration of pollution increases, the subjective interpretation of self-awareness of sadness increases.

So the take home message. As exposure to poor or bad indoor air quality occurs, according to this study, your happiness will go down, your stress level will go up, and your sadness will go up.

I think this is just brilliant research because it moves away from our discussion focusing only on mould exposure. And it talks about the wider problem of indoor air quality, which then leads me back to that story about that couple. As I move through the building, taking measures of moisture content in base plates throughout the property and various different tests to assess the microbiological components or surface damage to the timbers, the husband nearly broke down and started crying. A couple of times, he got into a semi-heated argument with the builder. I think it would have been worse had I not been there. He took me out to the car several times because he was so angry and he looked like he was going to begin weeping. Now he was desponded, upset, angry, displaying a range of different emotions that I'm sure anyone who has suffered from water damage and mould exposure can relate to that story.

But what's going on at the biochemical level? What's going on inside your head, which is responsible for these range of different emotions, because I can tell you that when we do water damage and mould reports and hand those reports over, just the very act of taking measurements, in many cases, gives people a lot of hope for the future. Hope that they will be able to demonstrate the validity of their convictions about exposure to mould, and hope that they can get back to a normal mould ecology and get into a home that is not going to be mould affected.

And so I want to talk about how clinicians see happiness and what are the variables that are responsible for our perception of wellbeing. To do that, I need to introduce an acronym called DOSE. And each one of the letters corresponds to a different neurotransmitter, which in turn is connected with a different way of seeing the world and responding to the world. And we're going to take each of these in turn.

D is for dopamine, and this is a chemical messenger that's responsible for our anticipation of a reward. And as I told you, when I am onsite doing water damage and mould assessments, often the very act of being there to collect information with the anticipation that there'll be a report which clarifies a lot of the concerns that the stakeholders have, is enough to increase dopamine. Other ways that the individual can improve their levels of dopamine, is to focus on small wins at work or at home because that naturally increases our levels of dopamine. And importantly, just thinking back to positive memories is enough to generate dopamine. That's really important and certainly the clinicians that I talk to are increasingly using digital images to recall positive situations, to manufacture in a local environment, which can contribute to higher dopamine levels. So there are other ways that you can potentially control dopamine. That includes a healthy diet, increasing the consumption of almonds, avocados, bananas, tumeric, and vitamin D.

Now, all of this is really good, but there are other hormones and neurotransmitters that also impact on mood. And the next one that we're going to talk about is oxytocin. And most of you will have heard of this before. It is the love hormone.

The oxytocin is known to increase during childbirth and to promote bonding. It leads to and strengthens feelings of warmth, trust, and altruism, and it is really important for having empathetic emotions. But the big problem with oxytocin is that it is impacted on by stress. So as cortisol levels increase, your levels of oxytocin decrease.

Now there's another neurotransmitter called serotonin. This chemical messenger is responsible for us exercising our willpower and it gets switched on and off when we feel respected by others.

I'm always mindful when I'm doing assessments on site to respect everyone's viewpoints, even if I can see some holes in people's thinking arguments or logic. It's really important that every person in a water damage and mould situation and dispute does respect the other party's opinion, because at the end of the day, it will be what it will be. A property either is, or is not mould contaminated, and usually that contamination is localized. But getting on to feelings of wellbeing, exercising new habits increases serotonin levels. Serotonin is regulated by exposure to sunlight, and positive behaviors like a massage and touch events increase serotonin.

I'm continually struck by all of these subjective feelings of wellbeing and perceptions of wellbeing that I certainly see that often are invisible in the clinic. Last night, I was talking to a GP, a medical practitioner, and we were comparing notes on the differences in my relationship with clients and patients and the doctor's relationships. He was saying that in seven minutes to 15 minutes maximum, it's very difficult for him to take in the complexity of a patient's living environment, let alone their state of mind unless the individual can express that succinctly. And I was saying that in the couple of hours that I do onsite inspections, I get a very good empathetic understanding of what's going on in their home. And there are a lot of visual cues that you can detect in someone's home that contributes to, in a sense, a identification of how these different neuro-transmitters potentially impact on that individual and the other members of the family as well, but I digress.

Getting back to the fourth neurotransmitter, the fourth neurotransmitter is an endorphin and the very term endorphin gives you a clue about what it is actually doing. The endorphin comes from the word endogenous, meaning it comes from within the body, and morphine is intimately connected with pain relief.

So endorphins are released in response to pain or stress and it's important to recognize when they are released. Their aim in your neurochemistry is to minimize discomfort and maximize pleasure, allowing us to continue functioning despite illness, injury, or stress. And activities that boost creativity, acupuncture, for example, behaviors that cause us to laugh or things that make us exercise, all stimulate levels of endorphins.

Now, DOSE. It's a full little acronym and it definitely allows you to remember which of the four neurotransmitters that regulate mood and this impacts as we can see in this beautifully elegant research from 2020, showing that aspects of wellbeing like stress and happiness can all be connected and linked with objective measures of particulate matter and air pollution. And I'm also saying that PM2.5 is almost in one-to-one correspondence with mould spore counts in the air and out in the normal outdoor air space. So the connection between air pollution and mould and mood cannot be underestimated.

In any case, where am I getting a lot of these clinical findings?

Well, I consult at the National Institute of Integrative Medicine, and also, especially in the last month, I have been participating heavily on a new social media app called Clubhouse. On this app, you can have conversations on particular topics. Think of this as a living conference or a mastermind. And a lot of them are medically focused. And a lot of the clinicians that are dealing with the topic of happiness and mood and anxiety and longevity are discussing ways in which you can biohack your brain, in a sense, to move you from a state of discomfort, into a more positive living environment. And certainly with my clients who are in the throes of dealing with complicated situations surrounding water damage and mould, being able to get into a more positive frame of mind can only be a positive thing.

And so the summary of a lot of the practical steps that the clinicians are advocating with their patients for manually creating conditions that improve a lot of these neurotransmitters or put them onto a level where they have positive health outcomes can be summarized on the next slide.

The clinicians overwhelmingly promote the practice of mindfulness. That is visualizing situations that are positive, giving gratitude, obviously taking advantage of exercise and a good diet, but also not underestimating the impact of touch, things like acupuncture and massage. For all allowing the individual, to some extent, control these neurotransmitters.

In any case, my name's Dr. Cameron Jones. I do The Mould Show every week. This is available as a podcast on iTunes, also as a live stream on Facebook and YouTube. I'm always after people's questions. I love answering questions. Increasingly you can find me on Clubhouse. And on Clubhouse, you can find me in various rooms, but I am currently doing two rooms per week on the topic of mould. And I'm doing this with Kealy Severson online and she has a room that we co-moderate called the Mould Exposers.

Jump online or go to my website or my Linktree to discover how you can participate and get some questions answered. Often it is faster and more direct than sending an email.

In any case, I hope you now appreciate the connection between indoor air quality and happiness a little bit better. I'd encourage you to download the original studies and the link studies within those papers and read the results and conclusions yourself. It's very compelling. In any case, have a great week. See you next week. Bye for now.


Li M, Ferreira S, Smith TA, Zhang X. Air pollution and noncognitive traits among Chinese adolescents. Health Econ. 2021 Feb;30(2):478-488. doi: 10.1002/hec.4193. Epub 2020 Nov 16. PMID: 33197091

Song Y, Zhou A, Zhang M. Exploring the effect of subjective air pollution on happiness in China. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2020 Dec;27(34):43299-43311. doi: 10.1007/s11356-020-10255-8. Epub 2020 Jul 31. PMID: 32737779.

Lal RM, Das K, Fan Y, Barkjohn KK, Botchwey N, Ramaswami A, Russell AG. Connecting Air Quality with Emotional Well-Being and Neighborhood Infrastructure in a US City. Environ Health Insights. 2020 May 3;14:1178630220915488. doi: 10.1177/1178630220915488. PMID: 32425542; PMCID: PMC7218333.

Roe J, Mondschein A, Neale C, Barnes L, Boukhechba M, Lopez S. The Urban Built Environment, Walking and Mental Health Outcomes Among Older Adults: A Pilot Study. Front Public Health. 2020 Sep 23;8:575946. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2020.575946. PMID: 33072714; PMCID: PMC7538636.

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