Decluttering can help you stick to healthy habits, reduce stress, even sleep better, says this doctor (and reformed hoarder)
One of the most easily cluttered areas in our homes is our kitchen. Did you know that the state of your kitchen can influence your eating behaviour - and not in a good way?
There's concrete science behind it. A group of undergraduate students was asked to taste and rate cookies, crackers and carrots, in a study by researchers from Cornell and Syracuse Universities. This was to dupe them into thinking they were involved in an experiment about taste. But the real experiment started when they were invited to help themselves to leftovers, some in a clean, calm and orderly kitchen and others a chaotic kitchen, filled with clutter. Afterwards, they were also asked to write about a time when they felt particularly in control or particularly out of control.
So, who ate the most? Perhaps not surprisingly, the people who were both in the chaotic kitchen and who disclosed a more out-of-control mindset ate significantly more cookies than the others.
A chaotic kitchen can make us more susceptible to unhealthy food choices. But importantly our mindset is important too - it can either trigger you or protect us from reaching for the next biscuit. This is not the only study to exploring the way our surroundings affect our ability to make healthy choices.
Why clutter makes us stressed and sleepless
It's not just eating that's affected; our environment can either sabotage or support many of our other healthy habits. If you have a cleaner home, you're more likely to be healthier and more physically active, according to studies in Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise . If your home is untidy, it can make you feel stressed and even have a knock-on effect on your immune system. It's been shown that people who describe their homes as “messy”, “cluttered” and “disorganised” have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol in the body is known to suppress immune function. Decluttering might even help you sleep better, in fact hoarders have more trouble sleeping according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
I like to call our environment the ‘where’ of wellbeing, and it encompasses everything things we breathe in and interact with, from within our homes to our neighbourhood, and how it makes us feel.
A friendly workspace is key to the wellness puzzle
At some level, we will all have experienced an environment that has had a negative effect on our health: a stuffy conference room, an unwelcoming office or even an area of our house that makes us feel irritated. This can be down to air pollution or poor air quality, environmental toxins or a lack of ‘pleasant diversions’, e.g. nice lighting, beautiful views, moisture and noise levels or a pleasant room temperature. Our living space and our workspaces, a key part of our wellness puzzle,
I'm not sure where this quote is from but I've heard more people use it recently. “We spend money that we do not have on things that we do not need to satisfy pacifying wants that further distract us from what we fundamentally need”.
Perhaps it's because we're steeped in mass consumerism, that we all need reminding of this now and again.
How I became a reformed hoarder
I'm a reformed hoarder and have recently lived through a full-house renovation. I can’t say it was my idea of heaven to buy a house and completely redo it and spend months living in barely-controlled chaos. It took an incredible amount of effort to maintain some sort of semblance of a healthy lifestyle during this time. But because we don't really have a lot of stuff, it was much easier than it could have been.
I can't take full credit for having a clean, organised and minimal home. I married a minimalist. My husband hates 'stuff'. According to his mother, he has always been this way. Over the years (and several house moves together, including abroad and back) he has convinced me to let go of so much stuff. I have questioned why I own the things I have, I have embraced (and started to enjoy) the feeling of having less and also found I now naturally buy less.
My home is very important to my wellbeing, particularly my mental health. It is mostly minimally decorated, tidy and clean with a space and a place for everything (leave anything lying around without a place and it will soon be gone if my husband spots it).
Less clutter, less stress, less debt
In my case, less clutter led to less stress – and less debt. As a family with five-year-old twins, we are not minimalists in the strictest sense, but we're consciously discovering what’s important - not wanting less but needing less. When my kids’ friends visit, I’ve heard them whisper to their parents “where is all the stuff?”.
The good news is that you don’t have to completely change your entire home and adopt a minimalist mindset to reap the benefits of a less chaotic environment. There are so many different ways to simplify your life.
Whether you start with your kitchen cupboards or by adding some pleasant diversions using plants, diffusers or artworks; you might be surprised by how much happier and healthier you feel.
A messy or chaotic environment has a trickle-down impact on many healthy behaviours nudging us to eat poorer, sleep poorer and impacting our mood, physical movement and productivity. When we value our surroundings as a determinant of our health, we can go a long way to feeling better and living well.
Dr Jenna Macciochi is an immunologist and an ambassador for wellbeing brand Healthspan .