What you see, hear and smell can help (or harm) your health…

When we consider what keeps us healthy, a balanced diet, regular exercise and good sleep probably top our list. Access to trees and other natural surroundings wouldn’t even come to mind for most people. But it should.

What researchers are now discovering: More evidence than ever before shows that what we see, hear and smell can affect our health and well-being in surprising ways.

For example, a recent study published in Preventive Medicine linked access to natural surroundings, such as green parks, sandy beaches and mountain views, to improved sleep in adults over age 65. Adequate restful sleep is associated with stronger immunity and better brain function.

While so-called “healing spaces” have long been part of traditional cultures, including those of the ancient Greeks and Native Americans, modern science is now confirming the connection. Even though the picture is far from complete, there’s enough information to guide you in arranging your surroundings to foster good health—and avoid potentially damaging environments.

The Power of Visuals

There is strong evidence showing that our visual surroundings impact our health. For example, studies have found that hospitalized patients with a view of trees heal faster, need less pain medications and leave the hospital earlier than those whose windows look out on a brick wall or who don’t have access to a window at all. Similar studies confirm the general healing power of natural vistas.

Brain-imaging studies at the University of Southern California offer a possible explanation. When people look at scenes they prefer, it activates the parahippocampal cortex, a brain area that is rich in endorphins—natural chemicals associated with stress reduction and pleasure. Another visual that affects our well-being is color. While the overall health impact of color is not well established, some studies suggest effects on mood and behavior—red and yellow are stimulating and activating, while blue and green have a calming effect.

The Sounds of Health

Noise (unwanted sound, particularly at high volume) is a stressor that raises heart rate and blood pressure.

New finding: A study published in the European Heart Journal linked long-term proximity to traffic noise with a small but significant increase in stroke risk—especially in older adults.

Conversely, soft, soothing sounds, whether it’s the whisper of wind in the trees or a lovely melody, are calming and relaxing. A 2015 study provided evidence supporting the belief, common among surgeons, that hearing music of the doctors’ choice in the operating room reduces stress and leads to better surgical outcomes.

Also important: Music attached to positive memories (such as lullabies or songs you heard when you first fell in love) stir positive emotions and help you relax, while an unpleasant association can make the loveliest melody stressful.

The Nose Knows

Our moods are closely tied to certain odors. Examples: Orange blossoms in the night air may make you feel nostalgic…the smell of the sea may be profoundly calming. However, an otherwise benign smell is upsetting if it arouses painful memories. Beyond our personal preferences, do smells have healing powers? There is evidence to support this. Studies have shown that lavender, for example, promotes relaxation and improves sleep quality.

Your Own Healing Space

To create your own healing space, start by locating a specific area in your home or in the office where you can have quiet when you wish.

Then spend a few days noticing the things you see and do that make you feel comfortable and relaxed, as well as the objects that have strong positive meaning for you. To add these elements to your living space, create an area on your bookshelf or on your walls. A healing space could also be a favorite chair, a single picture or even the wallpaper on your smartphone. Also helpful…

Let nature in. It’s no coincidence that most people enjoy outdoorsy scents (such as pine and newly cut grass) and find sounds like surf and windswept trees relaxing. If your room lacks a window facing a pleasant scene, put up a landscape painting you find relaxing, and add some houseplants or cut flowers to the area. You could also add a scented cushion (for example, pillows filled with dried lavender buds give off a pleasing fragrance). Essential oils used in a spray bottle and scented candles can provide scents from nature as well. Note: Some people are allergic to certain scents or plants. Check with your doctor before using.

• Add soothing sounds. Put a CD or MP3 player in your space to provide soothing music. You can find many types of relaxing music, including nature sounds, for free or just a few dollars on the web (try CalmSound.com). Also: Gary Malkin, an award-winning film scorer, composes beautiful relaxing music (go to Musaic.biz/gary.html and click on “The Vault”).

How to Use Healing Light…

Exposure to sunlight has been linked to mood. For example, studies in Canada in winter have shown that depressed patients placed on the sunny side of hospital wards were discharged earlier than those on the darker side of wards. When creating your own healing space, pay close attention to light. What to do: Use lamps that will give you the light levels you respond best to, and when possible, choose a space with ample windows for natural light. If there is little natural light in the room, try a full-spectrum light box. The devices are available online and range from $100 to $500. They may be covered by insurance if you’ve been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or depression. People with diabetes, eye disease or bipolar disorder should check with their doctor before using a light box.

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