household health hacks
When managing stuff may matter more than diet
We’re all familiar with the problems that illegal drugs may wreak on a person.
But it seems to take an awful long time for us to take action when ‘ordinary’ things turn out to be bad for health.
For example, following the discovery that smoking causes cancer, it took over 50 years for the UK to implement a public smoking ban!
My work can be described as both ‘nutrition’ and ‘lifestyle medicine’, because health isn’t only about the food we do or don’t eat. It’s also impacted by the environment we live in, the objects we use, and the habits we have.
The British Society for Lifestyle Medicine states that chronic health conditions “are the result of complex lifestyle factors. They have physical, emotional, environmental and social determinants”.
Hence, we need “person-centred techniques to improve mental wellbeing, social connection, healthy eating, physical activity, sleep and minimisation of harmful substances and behaviours”.
The part I want to focus on here is the ‘minimisation of harmful substances’ – the ordinary things that you and I can easily reduce or remove from daily life.
For example, did you know that mouldy areas in your house may trigger inflammation in your gut, or even prompt thyroid dysfunction?
Or that substances in your plastic containers and shower gels may trigger or worsen not only hormone imbalances, but also cardiovascular problems?
Now, I’m not trying to scare you. Rather, I'm thinking: if a fairly straightforward household matter could make a big difference health-wise, maybe it's worth knowing about. It may even save money as well.
Let’s look at mould and damp to begin with.
As children, nobody educates us about household mould. So (unless you had a particularly detailed Hebrew class on the Book of Leviticus), you may not have heard much about this.
Mould spores are everywhere, but mouldy areas can only develop on susceptible surfaces. A bit like the stuff that grows on damp old bread. So when buildings have consistently damp spots, or poorly ventilated rooms, they become vulnerable to mould.
Once you have mould growing, it releases airborne toxins, which, when breathed in, can cause poisons called mycotoxins to proliferate in the body. (There are many different strains with long complicated names, but I will spare you this information.)
Mycotoxins have the capacity to worsen an existing physical problem by placing an extra burden on the liver and gut’s elimination processes. This in turn can create or exacerbate problems like gut bacteria imbalances, autoimmunity, or respiratory difficulties.
In fact, as a trigger of inflammation in the body – the body aims to fight toxic substances after all – mould can cause a whole variety of inflammation-related problems, including brain fog, migraines, anxiety/depression, or skin rashes. In some cases, children may experience this with symptoms like emotional overwhelm, meltdowns, or sensory overload; indeed there is some evidence that even early-life exposure to mould may have important effects.
But mould exposure won’t affect everybody in the same way. Some people are genetically predisposed to excrete mould toxins easily. Others have more difficulty getting rid of them (particularly those, like me, with variants or SNPs on their CYP3A4, CYP1A2, GSTM1 or GSTT1 genes).
So you could have two healthy people living in a damp and mouldy house. One of them might come down with respiratory problems, allergies, gut symptoms, or a dodgy thyroid. The other might appear a picture of health. And it’s worth remembering that even people in the same family will have unique genetic variations, and therefore differing reactions to mould. For more on this, have a look at the interview I conducted with practitioner Anne Pemberton.
Preventing and treating mould
I have had a number of clients whose health problems have been triggered or worsened by mould.
In terms of prevention, it’s mainly about good fan- and window-ventilation in bathrooms and kitchens, preventing and/or mopping up condensation, and avoiding pooling of water or stagnation of air.
With fuel so expensive lately, it’s tempting to batten down the hatches and ventilate less, but counter-productive if it produces mould and damp. I have small trickle vents in my windows, and I always leave them open, wearing an extra layer or two to compensate.
With existing mould, some people know there is a flagrant case of it in the house and they just have to get on with removal. For others (and I experienced this a few years ago) it’s more hidden, so it’s a case of taking a test to detect one’s own mould exposure, and testing the house, and seeing if the results match up.
The great thing to know is that, in most cases, it’s not difficult to identify and treat damp areas in the house. And improving ventilation, removing water damage, and removing mould are all investments that benefit the house as well as its inhabitants.
Two words of caution:
1. Don’t remove mould yourself, if you are susceptible to it. And ideally, find a professional to tackle it if it’s a large area. If it’s a small area, you may be able to remove it simply with white vinegar. I wouldn’t use bleach due to the toxic fumes from that mixing with the toxicity from the mould.
2. Be very careful with professional mould-removers. Too often they overdo it (making money from the excessive remediations) or under-do it (just giving it a wipe and a coat of paint, without tackling the underlying damp or other causes thoroughly). Ideally, find someone who’ll detect only, and then advise on remediation rather than do it themselves. If you want a vivid demonstration of what I’m talking about, you can follow @moldfinders on Instagram!
One bit of good news:
If you’ve been exposed to mould and you’re pretty ill from it, there are specific binders which can be used to remove mycotoxins from your system, and it’s possible to reduce other inflammatory factors in your diet at the same time to give your system a break.
In the UK we didn’t get a really large public discussion about plastics until the Attenborough documentaries pictured their impact on sea animals. Now there are more and more public campaigns recognising the impact of plastic on human health – an impact that is most acutely felt in developing countries.
Plastic used as water bottles, food containers, and as lining material for food tins can all leach a variety of chemicals into the body, some of which are oestrogen-like ‘xeno-estrogens’ which disrupt our delicate balance of hormones and are very difficult for our bodies to get rid of.
New research has discovered micro-plastics carried by cells in the human blood stream, raising questions about the impact of plastics on the immune system.
So what can be done? Well, I initially avoided plastic water bottles because of their environmental impact, but I’m staying away because of their health impact. I take around a battered, stainless steel water bottle instead.
We can pursue a low-plastic approach to our household, too, storing and heating food in non-plastic materials like pyrex, ceramics, stainless steel or baking paper. A big one to avoid is plastic used in heating or cooling, for example plastic kettles and ice cube trays.
(It’s remarkably challenging to find an affordable kettle which doesn’t put plastic in contact with water or have a plastic lid. IKEA makes a stainless steel one for £25 that goes on the hob, but I’m open to suggestions! And for the record, I don’t really buy the whole ‘BPA free’ thing. BPA alternatives aren’t verifiably better and in fact may even be worse.)
Other ordinary things
Whenever someone’s experiencing health challenges, and particularly if they are immune-related or have skin symptoms, I will be extra careful to check on their household and personal products. This is because all the synthetic chemicals and perfumes found in these products – whether breathed in the air or put on the skin – have to be eliminated by our livers, and many of them are in themselves toxic to humans.
So it’s worth going simple and basic with soaps, shampoos, shower gels and cleaning products, and maybe quitting scents and air fresheners.
The good news is that you might save the cost of a plastic-free kettle by not buying the products you usually get for yourself and the house.
For example, local bulk shops can often re-fill old spray bottles with low-toxin stuff like Ecover cleaners pretty cheaply. Even less expensive, white vinegar and cleaning-grade bicarbonate of soda can tackle most grubbiness – in fact the soda is brilliant for scrubbing and removing stains.
For skincare, the Environmental Working Group Skindeep website provides checklists of dodgy ingredients to avoid, alongside toxicity grading for well-known products. Last summer I looked up their sunscreen guide.
Fewer harmful substances
I hope this has provided a useful set of things to consider for your health, ideas that are beyond the remit of diet but intrinsically linked to wellbeing nevertheless.
As always, if you’re interested to find out more, ask questions, book an enquiry call, or just say hello, drop me a line via my website and I would love to hear from you.
Meanwhile, as the Lifestyle Medicine people put it, here’s to your very best mental wellbeing, social connection, healthy eating, physical activity, and sleep – and to the absolute minimum of harmful substances.
Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT
Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC
References / resources
Alvito, P., Pereira-da-Silva, L., 2022. Mycotoxin Exposure during the First 1000 Days of Life and Its Impact on Children’s Health: A Clinical Overview. Toxins (Basel) 14, 189.
Amato-Lourenço, L.F., Carvalho-Oliveira, R., Júnior, G.R., dos Santos Galvão, L., Ando, R.A., Mauad, T., 2021. Presence of airborne microplastics in human lung tissue. Journal of Hazardous Materials 416, 126124.
Leslie, H.A., van Velzen, M.J.M., Brandsma, S.H., Vethaak, A.D., Garcia-Vallejo, J.J., Lamoree, M.H., 2022. Discovery and quantification of plastic particle pollution in human blood. Environment International 107199.
Rosenfeld, C.S., 2021. Xenoestrogen effects on the gut microbiome. Current Opinion in Endocrine and Metabolic Research 19, 41–45.
Sánchez, A., Rodríguez-Viso, P., Domene, A., Orozco, H., Vélez, D., Devesa, V., 2022. Dietary microplastics: Occurrence, exposure and health implications. Environmental Research 212, 113150.
Viljoen, M., Claassen, N., 2023. Pathophysiological aspects of exposure to dampness-associated indoor mould and mycotoxins: A mini-overview. Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances 9, 100228.