Our external surroundings can and do affect our immunity in both negative and positive ways, according to an expert panel convened by The Livehealthy Festival.
The panel featured:
• Dr Lamees Abu Hlaiqa, a physician working at the Abu Dhabi Public Health Center, board member in the Sea of Culture Foundation, a well-known literature foundation in UAE, an NLP coach and trainer and an artist
• Dana Howells, a nutrition coach based in Abu Dhabi
• Tatiana Antonelli, founder and managing director of Goumbook, the first green information resource in the MENA region, dedicated to raising awareness about sustainability among the local community
• Barry Rosenthal, a photographer and sculptor based in New York. His work is exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art and his Found in Nature movement has a worldwide following. He also created the film Plastic Pandemic for the first Livehealthy Festival in 2020
We talk about ‘the environment’ all the time, but what does it actually mean?
Tatiana Antonelli: There are different levels. There’s the home environment, then your workplace, your neighborhood or city and then the larger environment, the planet. People feel disconnected to the broader environment and think they are powerless to do anything about it, but what we do at home has an impact on the larger environment. We can all do something about the way we consume and the way we waste.
Barry Rosenthal: I would add another one – the spiritual environment. Your inner life also connects to your immunity. You need to separate yourself from lies and keep your own sense of what’s right.
Dana Howells: The internal environment is a huge space and it’s not talked about much. The definition of health up to now has been being free of disease, but that’s not all we’re looking for at all. We are trying to thrive within our envronment. Social media, the conversational environment – it’s all part of trying to achieve and maintain flourishing health.
Dr Lamees Abu Hlaiqa: The environment is not just about objects. It also involves the people you surround yourself with, music, the news you’re listening to, the mental noise. Cleaning that environment boosts immunity.
What can we do in our personal environment to boost our immunity?
Barry: Starting in the micro-world, I understood I needed to learn how to relax. I started taking baths rather than showers. It takes a little extra time but it started the day in a more relaxed way.
I don’t practice meditation consistently but I have found it helpful in the past. Another goal would be to reduce screen time. So many of us just go from one screen to the next. Everyone has to fight against that.
Tatiana: It doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as changing the kind of paint you use in your house to avoid toxic chemicals, which will help your breathing. What about all those creams and lotions we put on our skin? We are putting all kinds of chemicals on ourselves on a daily basis.
Think about where our food comes from. Do they have acid rain there, do they use pesticides? What kind of fertilizer do they use? What kind of composting? This is especially important for us in the UAE, where 90 percent of our food is imported.
Dana: I’m a big believer in setting up. If you set up a clean, beautiful space to meditate in, it increases the chances that you’ll do it. Set up a cooking space. If you have a freezer full of highly processed food, you’re more likely to eat that rather than spend one day a week prepping good healthy meals. Make your bed. Set yourself up for the day.
One really simple intervention that we hardly ever talk about is lighting and it’s one of the biggest issues regarding health and immunity.
Our Circadian rhythms – our natural internal clock – are in our retina. When we’re exposed to bright light after sunset, we can’t fall asleep. Once the sun goes down, keep the lights dim rather than that aggressive fluorescent lighting that is so common here.
It’s such a small thing with a low risk but very high reward. You’re more comfortable, you relax more, you sleep better.
Dr Lamees: Sleep is the best thing you can do for your immunity. People used to sleep more and they had fewer diseases. Their metabolism worked better so there was less obesity. There are so many things we can’t control, like air pollution, so we have to build immunity in our home space and put up as many defenses as possible.
And what about the wider environment?
Tatiana: We can all respect nature and we have to. It’s not just about saving the Amazon. What are we doing to have clean air, clean water, clean food? We’re blessed here in the UAE because once decisions are made, things happen fast. Things are addressed immediately.
The plastic pollution on the beach and in the desert is huge. There are clean-ups and we’ve removed 30 tons of plastic from the desert in Dubai. I would like the government to push for such action to become mainstream and not just for the tree-huggers.
We all should feel it’s important to walk more, cycle more, reduce pollution and understand the dangers of things like using the wrong paint.
Dana: Finding nature can be a bit of a struggle here so why not start a balcony garden or have indoor plants? You can grow a herb garden just on your windowsill.
If you don’t have green fingers, there’s a woman who offers gardening sessions, called Elsie’s Balcony. She grew vegetables for her entire family for a year on her balcony.
Is there a link between social relationships and immunity?
Dana: If we can’t have social interaction in person, bring your full attention to whatever interaction you can have, whether it’s a Zoom call or a phone call or writing a letter. Before Covid we took these things for granted and spent a lot of time not really paying attention and living in a world of people who weren’t really around. Give your entire attention to online interactions and bring gratitude to it.
Tatiana: My mother fought very hard against cancer for nine years. What really made a difference to her was visiting us or when we went to visit her. After two or three weeks with us, her blood tests all showed her immune system was stronger.
When I was in isolation with Covid, the first two days were hard. Then my five-year-old son tested positive so he joined me in the room. He was bubbly and lively and it completely changed everything.
We have Zoom calls every two days with friends. Before Covid we didn’t take the time to do that. Now we understand how precious it is to give the half hour to our friends.
Barry: For the first three months of the pandemic, we were at home and my studio was closed. This was not a relaxed time for me, but walking in nature opened my eyes. My wife and I decided to leave New York and relocated to a rural area in Michigan. We spent most of the summer there among creative people who accepted us.
It was very enlightening, very heartening and allowed me to flourish and not shut down, which is how I felt when I was at home.
But the UAE is full of people who are far away from their families and closest friends…
Dr Lamees: This is where the value of community is so important because it replaces the family. You have to create a second family.
There is a mental health hotline: 800hope. It’s for everyone.
Dana: They should give that out at the airport!
Have we learned any lessons during the pandemic?
Tatiana: We’ve discovered areas we were not so much in touch with before and we’ve realized how much we miss them when we don’t have them any more. There’s a sense of gratitude for what we do have and a positive mindset really helps our immunity. We’ve seen how nature can turn against us so we must care for it.
Barry: I feel there has been a worldwide trauma going on. Anyone living through this has gone through a lot of changes. I’ve become closer to friends because we need each other.
Dana: Health is immunity. Calming behaviors feed into each other. Pick a relaxing color for your room and you’re more likely to relax, so more likely to meditate, more likely to sleep better. Start the ball rolling on the environment.
Dr Lamees Abu Hlaiqa, Tatiana Antonelli, Dana Howells and Barry Rosenthal took part in a discussion about Immunity and the Environment at the Livehealthy Festival on January 22, 2021
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.