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With the new year in full swing, many of us are setting new fitness, exercise and diet goals. However, some experts are recommending that we pay attention to our environment too. Turns out, understanding how our environment can affect our health will point us in the right direction in making the most impactful lifestyle changes in all aspects of our daily habits, from skincare to food choices.
According to professor of environmental medicine Dr Robert Wright at the Institute for Exposomic Research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, taking a deeper look into our environment can empower us to make informed lifestyle changes that will benefit our health the most. His basic premise is that while the modern medicine and health world has revealed numerous findings about everything from genetic predispositions to disease to the most heart-healthy exercise routines, health in general has continued to deteriorate over the past two decades with rates of obesity, diabetes, coronary problems and cancer continually rising. Wright says that perhaps part of this puzzle is the change in our environment.
While genes provide an important foundation that determines one’s propensity to certain illnesses or one’s gut health status, it is important that these are interactions with one’s environment. In other words, genes never work in isolation. Rather, they work in tandem with our dietary choices, social life, physical surroundings and exposures to either benefit or hurt our health, depending on all these different environmental factors.
Researchers have therefore begun delving into the science of exposome, which is to study the measurement of all health-relevant environmental factors across one’s lifetime. Because this area of study remains relatively new to the scientific world, exposomic researchers believe that it is possible that what we have for years attributed to “bad luck” risk factors are in fact associated with the environment. It simply hasn’t been measured enough.
This means that understanding one’s environment through measurement could very well help reveal to individuals what daily lifestyle choices are the best for their health. While a precise tool linking one’s environment to health has yet to be developed, we already have many of these environmental measurement devices available.
For instance, we have hundreds of thousands of data sets on everything from daily weather patterns, air pollution and quality levels, exposure to light, water quality, outdoor noise levels, local crime statistics and the age of buildings. In an era of smartphones, many apps can even tell us the quality of air in the specific area of the user, thanks to modelling technology. Hong Kong’s own PRAISE-HK app, as an example, can tell you the air quality within a 2-metre radius, and even show predictive forecasts of air pollution up to 48 hours in advance.
Coupled with the uptick in popularity of devices and tech tools that have found ways to measure our individual heart rate, physical activity and even sleep quality (which some of us have become slightly addicted to), all of this means that we may be able to make associations between how each our surrounding environment and genetics work in combination to produce health effects.
While studying individual environmental factors and its impact on our health might just be the next step up in medicine, other researchers are also placing hope on a healthier future through the personalisation of food. With more scientific studies documenting the extent to which individuals are different to each other, from unique gut microbiomes to our responses to certain types of foods, experts are placing bets on food customisation as the route to health and wellbeing. Japanese startup Open Meals, for instance, are “smartifying” food by 3D-printing sushi with injected nutrients that individual diners need, based on their biometric and genomic data.
With all these technological developments underway in the medicine and science world, what’s clear is that everything to do with health and wellness is only going to get a whole lot more personal in the future.
Lead image courtesy of Pixfeeds.