Sunlight, nature prove soothing both in hospital and at home
Can the design of the physical space of your home and work contribute to your health?
Taking a cue from hospital room design, the answer is a resounding yes.
Early research demonstrated that patients in hospital rooms with windows overlooking natural areas left the hospital faster and with less pain medication. Further research has shown that hospital rooms designed with healing in mind result in a reduced perception of stress, stimulated healing and shorten hospital stays.
The idea that physical surroundings impact healing is not new. In 1860, Florence Nightingale promoted the use of good ventilation and sunlight as the "first canon of nursing."
Indeed, in many hospitals in Europe, patients spent time outside, weather permitting, as part of their therapy.
In the last part of the twentieth century, efficiency and patient safety resulted in the design of hospitals and patient rooms to be painted that universal white, unadorned and smell of antiseptics.
These changes increased the noise levels making restful sleep almost impossible.
As market forces have forced competition, better design of hospitals and medical centers, the unexpected result of this improved design is improving overall patient health.
The physical design of a space -- home, office or hospital -- has repeatedly been shown to have a pronounced effect on health possibly through the powerful connection between the mind and body.
Stress causes the release of specific neurotransmitters and stress hormones all designed to rapidly prepare the body to either run or fight. These neurotransmitters and hormones, if they persist over time as in chronic stress, result in damage to both the body and the mind.
A short dose of the stress hormone cortisol is protective while persistent elevation of cortisol weakens the immune system, prolongs wound healing, increases the risk of cancer growth, diabetes and aging.
The lighting, color, sound and smell of a space affects our mood by triggering the release of either feel-good molecules such as dopamine and endorphins or stress molecules like cortisol.
Limited exposure to natural light can increase stress and affect the immune system. Expansive views of nature are almost universally favored.
Full-spectrum sunlight makes most people feel better and can be a boost to the immune system. Colors also impact mood, mostly through learned associations.
Higher frequency colors like blue and green are associated with calmness. Colors in the lower frequency of the light spectrum like yellow and red tend to be more excitatory.
Music elicits emotional responses. Merchants have long known that the type of music played in their stores attracts specific customers and affects their purchasing actions. I have very relaxing music constantly playing in my office and patients often comment on how good it makes them feel.
In an increasingly stressful world, we must not forget that we are part of nature and are affected by our environment.
Creating a work/living space that is conducive to balance and peace is crucial now, more than ever, to our good health.
• Dr. Patrick B. Massey, MD, PH.D., is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is www.alt-med.org.