Our environments can have a massive effect on our bodies and brains, especially when it comes to our mental health. Both culturally and linguistically, we associate “fresh air” with feelings of relief. Whenever we’re having a bad mental health day, the go-to advice is to step outside and get some fresh air. In fact, many areas have issued new rules requiring access to fresh, outdoor air for patients at various medical centers.
But does fresh air actually improve mental health, or is the real issue that air recirculation damages mental health? We’ll explore the answers to this question and discuss how other factors affect air quality’s impact on mental health.
Air Quality and Mental Well-Being: Exploring the Link Between Indoor Air and Mental Health
One of the first things to address is the link between indoor air and mental health. Emerging evidence shows that the effects of poor air quality include oxidative stress, inflammation, and blood-brain barrier changes. This results in a wide variety of problems, including cognitive impairment, stress, loss of focus, and a measurable increase in depressive symptoms.
While the medical community has been vaguely aware of the effects of fresh air on the body and brain, many people felt that the negative effects would only be noticeable in particularly young or older individuals. However, recent findings have proven that the air is affecting everyone, regardless of age.
Given that most people spend roughly 90 percent of their day inside, the quality of indoor air may be one of the most important—and least explored—triggers of poor mental health.
Fresh Air’s Benefits: Understanding How Outdoor Air Contributes to Cognitive Function
If indoor air can harm the brain and body, what might be the mental health benefits of fresh, outdoor air? These effects can be somewhat difficult to quantify. The body of evidence showing that spending time outdoors is helpful is massive, but very little of that separates the air quality from other influences.
What is more measurable, however, is the impact that cleaning the air has on a person. Excluding major pollution issues or widespread environmental problems, outdoor air has a lower concentration of pollutants and allergens. By artificially cleaning the air, we can mimic the results of fresh air. In studies on mice, animals that had long-term exposure to typical air showed far more depressive behaviors, as well as problems with spatial learning and memory. Meanwhile, the mice who breathed clean, filtered air didn’t have the same problems.
Beyond this, we must consider the psychological impacts of breathing fresh air. When air is recirculated, our bodies can often sense it. There is a feeling of stuffiness or stagnation that can impact our brains, even if the air is of decent quality. These sensations may have major impacts on a person’s mental health. On the other hand, fresh air is typically not as stagnant, bringing a sense of relief and freedom.
Recirculated Air Concerns: Exploring the Impact of Stagnant Air on Mental Wellness
Generally, indoor air is of lower quality than the air outside—usually because it is recirculated air. In an attempt to save costs, many businesses will not pull air from outside, instead choosing to constantly recirculate the air inside. This, along with dirty ductwork and allergens like mold, dust, and debris, leads to poor indoor air quality. The worse the quality of the air inside, the bigger the impact on your health—both physical and mental.
The effects are so pronounced that experts even link them to a specific condition: sick-building syndrome. This chronic disease most commonly causes symptoms like irritation, fatigue, dizziness, headache, and nausea, among a range of mental health impacts.
Researchers and medical professionals have attempted to link sick-building syndrome to specific pathogens. Unclean ductwork is constantly pumping dust, dirt, and other debris into the air, which the system recirculates. These contaminants may increase the risk of illness and have far-reaching effects on our systems. Alternatively, studies have linked several psycho-social circumstances to sick-building syndrome, including a sense of stagnation, air stuffiness, high job demand, and poor support, among others.
Though findings remain inconsistent, it is clear that spending excess time inside with recirculated air can be very harmful to your well-being.
Ventilation and Cognitive Performance: The Role of Proper Air Circulation in Mental Clarity
When a 2021 study followed 302 office workers in six countries, it found that ventilation (or lack thereof) significantly impacted cognitive performance. While measuring the pollutants in the air, the researchers found that both response time and correct responses per minute noticeably dropped with even slight increases of common pollutants. By mimicking worse ventilation, the project also discovered that the negative effects were even more pronounced.
The experts behind the project pointed to the ever-growing list of reasons to improve indoor air quality. Lower pollutant levels lead to fewer asthma attacks, a drop in premature mortality, and lower rates of cardiovascular disease. Better ventilation directly limits the spread of sick-building syndrome, reduces disease transmission, and tends to lower absenteeism in the workplace.
Now, better cognitive performance and a reduction in the risk of depression and anxiety join those findings, further illustrating the need for better filtration and ventilation rates.
Improving Indoor Air Quality: Practical Steps to Enhance Mental Health through Air Quality
While you may now understand how important air quality is to a person’s health, you may be wondering what you can do to improve the air quality of your spaces. Primarily, the easiest way to boost ventilation is to introduce outdoor air. In a typical living space, you can simply open windows or doors and bring in some fresh air. However, in office spaces, this can be far more difficult. Ideally, your workplace would understand the need for fresh air and use an HVAC system that draws in new air. If this isn’t the case, try to step outside for several minutes every few hours.
Regular cleaning can dramatically cut down on the dust and debris in the air, improving air quality. Vacuum carpets and rugs with a machine fitted with a HEPA filter. Clean all bedding, drapes, and other fabric items often, especially if you have pets. Try to eliminate clutter that can provide hiding spaces for dust.
Change your HVAC filters regularly and schedule a frequent visit from an HVAC professional to ensure the system is working properly. Electrostatics, in particular, can cut down on airborne pollutants.
Finally, consider investing in air purifiers and placing them in the most frequented areas of your home or workplace. Ionic purifiers are powerful tools that can capture many of the irritants contributing to poor indoor air quality.
Improvements in air quality can contribute to better mental health, but they are one part of the picture. If you have been experiencing mental health symptoms such as anxiety or depression, please reach out. We at Restore Mental Health want you to feel better as soon as possible.