Time to turn off the air conditioning.


mindful manFor most of the past week (and part of this week), the Center has had no climate control. The AC compressor, already among the ancients, seized completely last week. After consultations with the experts from Elite Energy in Goshen, I decided that the best thing to do was to replace both furnace and air conditioning. Frankly, I've been keeping the furnace running with magic beads and baseless threats for the past two years, so I consider this to be a good opportunity. Elite Energy came back to me with an excellent bid on the job, so I gave them the go-ahead. The catch: It won't happen until Wednesday or Thursday.

That's actually no problem, as the weather is mild, and this building is well-insulated, which means cool nights will last until noon. Then we have to open the windows.

But this experience has made me think how, in many ways, this change is beneficial for my patients. One of the essential health problems of our time is the disconnect between us and our environment. And the more we struggle to control and isolate ourselves from our environment, the sicker we become. For example, we now know without a doubt that early exposure to bacteria in the soil improves immune system functioning throughout our lives. We know that peanut allergies are likely caused by not being exposed to them as infants. We know that walks in the woods reduce the symptoms of depression and improve cognitive functioning. We know that the chemicals we use to isolate our foods from their environment results in illnesses in ourselves.

How much of a difference would it make in our health if we stopped cocooning ourselves in climate control? It's a question worth asking.

I might have a different perspective on this than many, because I have never lived in a house or apartment with air conditioning, and for the past 18 years, have relied for heat primarily on a single wood stove in the center of my New England colonial-style house with single-pane windows that rattle in the breeze. I ride my bicycle or walk to most places, including work, 10-11 months out of the year. So I've lived my life closer to the patterns and cycles of our weather than many Americans, to the point where I am surprised when I walk into a climate-controlled house in the summer. (Interestingly, though, in the 1960s, only 12 percent of Americans had air conditioning in their homes. People seemed to survive ok.)

Certainly, aesthetically, buildings open to the natural world about them are more pleasant. In the spring, I am greeted by the smell of budding flowers and freshly-mown grass wafting in the kitchen window as I have my morning coffee. Thunderstorms in the evening bring a sudden, refreshing coolness, and you can smell the ozone in the air.

Being exposed to the environmental changes brings on eating changes as well, keeping my diet in sync with my physiological response to nature.

Conversly, we know that air conditioning can cause bad health. Asthma and allergies can be worsened by air conditioning, sometimes as what is known as sick building syndrome. This is usually attributed to poorly-maintained systems. In a well-maintained system, allergies are more often relieved by air conditioning.

Outside of that instance, I would argue that air conditioning is bad for your health in other, more obscure ways, and it goes back to the principle of being dissassociated from our environment. The less contact you have with your environment, the worse you are. Not surprisingly, this notion has received little attention among medical researchers. Of the few studies published, however, the results are suggestive that more frequent exposure to the natural environment leads to better health.

Fortunately, however, I'm not tied to the research. I rely as much on the wisdom of my professional forbears as I do on modern research, and in that, the conclusions are unequivocal. Changes in environments have been prescribed since the days of Avicenna and the Yellow Emperor, and through the ages, "environmental therapy" has been an essential feature of the treatment of many serious disorders.

So, even after we get our climate control systems back online here, I think I will make more of an attempt this summer to keep my patients exposed to the healthy environment around them. In my office, patients find themselves regaining health in the most surprising ways. I should not ignore such a powerful intervention that has been used successfully for millenia.