The Surprising Link Between Indoor Living and Chronic Disease
The Surprising Link Between Indoor Living and Chronic Disease (And What We Can Do About It)

Did you know that the average person spends 90% of their time indoors, largely disconnected from the natural world? While our modern buildings provide shelter and comfort, growing evidence suggests this indoor lifestyle may be contributing to a host of chronic health problems, from allergies and asthma to depression and obesity.


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted buildings’ role in spreading disease, even when designed to be germ-free. Factors like poor ventilation, lack of sunlight, and indoor air pollution can all contribute to the problem. But there’s another piece to the puzzle that’s often overlooked: the microbiome of the built environment.


Like our gut, indoor spaces are teeming with trillions of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Surprisingly, most of these microbes are quite different from the beneficial ones found in nature that humans evolved alongside for millions of years.

We may be doing more harm than good in our understandable zeal to create germ-free indoor environments. Overuse of sanitizers and antimicrobials can lead to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs while wiping out beneficial bacteria that keep us healthy. This effect may be especially problematic for infants and children whose developing immune systems need exposure to diverse microbes.

So, what’s the solution? Forward-thinking architects and designers are reimagining our buildings with the microbiome in mind. This could include simple measures like using more organic materials, maximizing natural light and outdoor spaces, and improving ventilation to bring fresh air and beneficial outdoor microbes.

Some scientists are even exploring deliberately seeding indoor environments with beneficial bacteria, such as certain bacillus strains that can outcompete pathogens on surfaces. Several companies have begun marketing bacterial sprays to restore a healthy microbiome to homes and offices.

As we spend more time indoors than ever, the pandemic is a crucial wake-up call to re-evaluate our relationship with the built environment. With the growing threats of climate change, chronic disease, and future pandemics, creating healthier indoor spaces that support our natural microbiome is increasingly urgent.

The good news is that we can take small steps to cultivate a healthier indoor microbiome, from opening windows to letting in fresh air to incorporating more natural materials in our homes. Just as we’ve learned to tend our gut microbiome, we may have also started tending to our buildings. Our health and well-being may depend on it.

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