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Mindful : April 2014
Esther Sternberg advises a number of federal government and green-building committees, as well as the American Institute of Architects. “These organizations are rushing to add human health and well-being standards to their requirements. It’s going to change the landscape of health.” END YOUR WORKDAY a few minutes early. Sit and recall someone who did something you appreciate. Let the warm feeling infect your evening. Find more on Twitter @mindinterrupter Exploring the Next Health Frontier “ We need to improve the physical environment—the buildings and spaces we inhabit—to enhance health. It’s the nex t frontier.” This is Esther Sternberg’s current agenda, as laid out in her book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well- Being. She is a professor of medicine and the research director at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Sternberg’s more than 30 years of mind–body research has established, among other things, a direct correlation between emotions and health. Her work has demonstrated that positive emotions enhance health, while negative emotions and stress contribute to and exacerbate illness. She became interested in the con- nection between the brain and the immune system when she was studying rheumatol- ogy at McGill University’s medical school. After finishing her studies, she did research at the National Institutes of Health on how reducing stress levels not only supports health but can also slow the aging process. “When you can prove and understand the mechanisms and pathways of how the brain and the immune system talk to each other in rats,” says Sternberg, “and when you can prove that when this communica- tion is broken you get disease and when it’s intact you have health, this suppor ts the idea that stress can make you sick.” Sternberg, along with her colleagues in integrative medicine, have found that prac- tices such as meditation and yoga, which have long offered anecdotal evidence of benefits, could now be validated through rigorous science. “ We call it integrative medicine, rather than complementar y or alternative,” she says, “because it’s not about using treatments that ‘complement’ or offer ‘alternatives.’ Our aim is to integrate ancient practices into modern therapeutic practice to promote genuine healing. “Have we come back to fully under- standing these ancient principles, which people have known for thousands of years, in the language of science?” asks Stern- berg. “The answer is, yes we have.” Of her latest initiative, she says, “We also know that physical environment can very powerfully affect emotions. Therefore, changes in the physical environment also impact the mind–body connection.” At the University of Arizona, Stern- berg founded the Institute for Place and Wellbeing, which fosters links between the colleges of medicine, architecture, and the environment. “This is incredibly excit- ing,” she says, “because we’re develop- ing ways to understand how much our environment—whether it’s office buildings, schools, urban spaces, or the natural envi- ronment here in the deser t—can impact healing. Research shows that hospital patients who are exposed to natural sur- roundings heal faster. This understanding is having a big impact on how buildings, especially hospitals, are being planned. “ We need to change the standards for building and urban design,” says Stern- berg, who advises a number of federal government and green-building commit- tees, as well as the American Institute of Architects. “This year, all these organiza- tions are rushing to add human health and well-being standards to their require- ments. It’s going to change the landscape of health.” Currently, the Institute of Place and Wellbeing is working with Walter Reed National Militar y Medical Center in Wash- ington, D.C., to reclaim par t of a local park as a sanctuary for wounded military per- sonnel and veterans. The park will be used to study the effect that spending time in natural settings has on healing. Sternberg has even met with the Pope to discuss how Roman Catholic-affiliated hospitals—there are 120,000 worldwide—can become bet- ter places for healing. “It’s amazing how these principles are being accepted on a global scale,” she says. “ We’re talking about working with organizations as different as the Depar t- ment of Defense and the Vatican, and ever y thing in between.” ● “We know that a physical environment can very powerfully affect emotions. Therefore, changes in our environments also impact the mind–body connection.” Esther Sternberg 10 mindful April 2014 now PHOTOGRAPHBYMICHELLEBURLEYPHOTOGRAPHY