Air and Light w/ Dr. Tamsin Lewis

Guest Hero: Dr. Tamsin Lewis. Medical Doctor and Personalised Integrative Health/Performance for Life, Mum, Former Pro Triathlete & Ironman Champ. You can find her at or @sportiedoc on Twitter.

We may feel like the air and light around us are out of our control and that we are at the mercy of the building superintendents but that is not entirely true. With an air filter, some plants and some carefully chosen light bulbs, and maybe a funky pair of yellow glasses, we can become the Hero over our own invisible pollutants.

Hello, my cubicle conscious, open space surveyors, corner office respirators, home den inhalers, and coffee shop sighters. My name is Brock Armstrong, and I am… not the Workplace Hero. You see the reason the website for this podcast is and not .com is because this podcast is about making you into a workplace hero and I want you to be reminded of that every time you visit the website, send me an email, or tell a friend about this podcast. And you will, right? Right?

Before we dive in, I want to thank everyone who, at the time of this recording, has left a review on iTunes for the podcast. On the Canadian side: Dean Dwyer, elllietown, mijustiin, cawood1 and Elliotonitunes. On the #murican side: alex arrick, tdubs530, MAR150 and ukaserex. From the bottom of my workplace casual heart, I thank you all for your support. And without sounding too needy, if your name wasn’t on the list I just read, it would really help me out if you took a minute or two to give the podcast an iTunes boost. It is a small but meaningful way to show your support for the show. Just go to and you will be directed right there! Easy!

Ok, on with the topic at hand.

I was listening to a Scientific American podcast a while ago and was excited to hear that a new study (released Aug 2016) had been done on how effective plants can be at cleaning the Volatile Organic Compounds from the air. As someone who has worked in extremely tightly sealed office buildings most of my life (you gotta keep that -30 degree Alberta air out somehow) I have often had a plant or two near my desk — but was only going on a hope and a dream that they were actually providing any benefit beyond covering up some coffee stains or overzealous permanent marker manoeuvres.

The Scientific American podcast said, and I’m sure we can all agree, that Air pollution outside is easy to spot, hanging over the city, or puffing out of an exhaust pipe. But there’s a lot of indoor air pollution, too, even if it’s not as obvious. It’s caused by volatile organic compounds or VOCs.

Vadoud Niri, an analytical chemist at the State University of New York, Oswego says that they can come from building materials like paints, carpet, adhesives, vinyl floors, varnishes, solvents, personal care products, cleaning chemicals, air freshener, and even cosmetics.

And that cosmetics part is what caught Niri’s attention. One day he went to a nail salon with his wife and he noticed the smell of acetone and since he was doing air analysis at the time, he thought he might be able to do something about this issue.

Niri figured one friendly and efficient way to get rid of acetone might be with houseplants. So he reviewed decades of literature and ran his own experiment, using an airtight chamber, and eight VOCs, in concentrations similar to those found in nail salons, against five common houseplants: a jade plant, a spider plant, a bromeliad, a Caribbean tree cactus, and what’s known as a Dracaena plant.

Turns out, after a twelve-hour test, it was the bromeliad that gobbled up the most chemicals from the air. And the Dracaena beat out the others, sucking up a whopping 94 percent of the acetone. He presented the results at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, in Philadelphia.

The paper is titled: Monitoring volatile organic compound removal by common indoor plants using solid phase microextraction and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry — if you are interested in looking it up… but I will read you some of the abstract now:

Air pollution is one of the most important environmental threats to the health of the residents of all communities and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are among important air pollutants. These compounds are ubiquitous in the natural and industrialized world but are found in the highest concentrations in indoor environments. Some of the chemicals belonging to this group are benign to human health, or even necessary for normal physiological function. However, a substantial proportion of VOCs are detrimental to human health with effects ranging from dizziness and nausea to central nervous system damage, various forms of cancer, and even death. Because of the serious nature of VOCs as a health hazard, many remediation techniques are being developed. Phytoremediation, the use of plants to mitigate environmental pollution, offers one of the most practical solutions regarding cost and efficacy.

Five common plants were selected for this study. Three treatment conditions were applied to each plant to isolate active VOC uptake mechanisms; covering the base of the plant in foil, no foil, and the use of a light. Of the five plants; Guzmania lingulata showed the greatest overall VOC uptake in light treatment conditions with more than 80% removal of six of the eight target VOC compounds over a twelve-hour sampling period. All tested plants showed less than 50% removal of dichloromethane or trichloromethane over the twelve-hour sampling period.

My office now is literally littered with plants. Some of the plants from the study to clean my air and some that I just like looking at. Which in and of itself gives us some benefits as well. As the author of the study Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being? said (in a rather lackluster scientific way) “It seems worthwhile to encourage interaction with plants, both outdoor and indoor, as this is likely to be a useful environmental initiative with a sound cost-benefit profile.”

Enter Dr. Tamsin Lewis (who asked me to tell you guys that she is fighting a bit of a cold so forgive her croakiness).

Yeah, I think this concept of indoor pollution is increasingly being recognized as a problem. There are two problems, the circulation of the air and the air conditioning which dries out the skin and the mucus membranes of the nose and the mouth. But it’s lack of air flow and lack of air quality, which can include things like a high content of carbon dioxide, which can effect even how we breathe, for example. So, there are lots of different parts there. It’s ventilation and really how strong the air conditioning would be in the office as well.

Oh, cool!

I am Dr. Tam, as I like to call myself, or otherwise known as @SportieDoc where you can find me on Twitter. I run a company called CuroSeven in the UK which will be relaunching as FIBR Health in a month. Essentially what I do is run a medical and wellness consultancy where we follow a functional medicine model. Where we take people’s information and data and make it meaningful and try to get people on a better path to health and longevity.

My background is a Medical Doctor “generalist” then I went into psychiatry and then after that I took time to become an elite triathlete – how that happened is a long story – but I took four years out and raced at the highest level of triathlon and Ironman. It taught me a lot about resilience, taught me a lot about physiology, taught me a lot about psychology and interpersonal relationships, and I have used all of that to change the way I approach my patient care today.

I asked Tamsin to sum up the biggest health issues that she sees arising directly from our office jobs.

So at the moment we see a lot of people that have… well the main things that I see are people with chronic low energy, I see a lot of people with low libido, I see people who just can’t stay awake in the afternoon, I see people with chronic mild pain issues, lower back pain, that sort of thing. And on a separate point many people with mood and anxiety issues which is compounded by the day to day environment in which most people, a lot of people, we have to be in an office environment and spend a lot of time there. So I would definitely like to address some of the issues that come up on a day to day basis in their environment of their office.

Now most of those things on that list didn’t surprise me but you mentioned libido. I don’t want to derail our conversation too much but I don’t think that is something that most people connect with their office job.

No! It’s true. I mean it’s complicated because it depends on the relationships with the people you have on your team but certainly, libido comes into it. Probably because of the sitting position. I don’t know if anyone’s ever addressed that, certainly not on your show yet but when people sit, they normally scrunch over slightly, they compress their certain um… genital regions. They change the temperature in the genitals, and that all indirectly can impact the sex organs essentially. So yes, that is one aspect. The other aspect is related to the diurnal variation in light exposure in the office. And we know that light exposure can affect testosterone production. So getting that bright light in the morning is very important for turning on the brain to tell the testes to produce a healthy amount on testosterone. So often when people aren’t getting that blue light exposure from a natural source, or even from an unnatural source like a light box, the testosterone production can go down – in susceptible individuals. I’m not saying this will happen to everyone but it certainly can come up as an issue.

I am so happy that Tamsin brought up lighting, which I plan to tackle in a full episode but let’s take a quick closer look at that while we are here anyway.

There is a recent (at the time of recording this) NY Times article called Light Bulbs That Help You Sleep by Ronda Kaysen that sums some of the issues up nicely.

It says that light interferes with our circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells our bodies when to sleep, when to wake up and when to eat. Stare at a bright, bluish light — like the one from your smartphone, tablet or television — and your body sends a signal to your brain to stop producing melatonin, a powerful hormone that helps you fall asleep.

Disruptions to our circadian rhythm can affect weight loss, libido, mood and sleep patterns. And chronic sleep deprivation can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and even certain cancers.

That blue glare is not limited to our electronic devices either. LED bulbs used in desk lamps and ceiling fixtures also emanate blue light, even if it appears to you as white. It doesn’t take a scientist to notice that incandescent bulbs feel soothing, like the light from a candle or campfire, while LED lights often feel like you’re staring at a fricken blowtorch.

Dr. Tam and I talked about how lighting is often chosen. I know there are a lot of issues around office lighting which is often chosen because of their low price not because of their high human compatibility.

Correct and we do a lot of strip lighting which is just terrible for the brain in general but people don’t think about it, do they? It’s only once you are out of that environment and immersed in the world of wellness and biohacking that you start to look at things more closely and realize that they do in fact impact your health and how you feel on an hour to hour basis.

Without getting too deep into lights and wavelengths and stuff like that, what is the issue with those cheaper types of strip lighting? Is it the flickering, the colour intensity, what is it about those lights that is really doing the damage?

I think it is both of the things that you mentioned. I think it is also the fact that our bodies aren’t meant to be exposed to that light intensity for that long of periods of time. I think that a short amount in the morning of that blue light is good, but as you say, it isn’t all the right wavelengths. And also that it is literally on all day and there is no variation in the lighting at all. So all of the above. Like I said, there is no change in that lighting quality at all, so that’s definitely one aspect. And that fact that people are in that environment for so long and that is often the only light they see especially in the winter months.

So as opposed to the sun moving across the sky and changing colour and position and all that stuff, we’re sitting, static, under these lights that aren’t moving, aren’t varying, aren’t changing. Interesting!

And obviously, also you get the impact of the computer light which has well-researched effects on circadian rhythm and secretion of different hormones that are light dependant.

So, I bet some of you can guess what your homework is going to be… But I won’t get ahead of myself!

One potential solution seems to be to replace (as they say in the New York Times article) the blowtorch with the campfire, especially after sundown.

As technology for LED lighting improves, companies are making more dynamic lighting that adjusts as you go through your day. And last spring, Apple introduced the Night Shift function in iOS so users can reduce the amount of blue light emitted from iPad and iPhone screens.

A company called Lighting Science has produced a line of what they call “biological bulbs” that give off light meant to work in sync with your circadian rhythm, instead of disrupting it. Philips has a line of smart bulbs called Hue, with preprogrammed settings that can transform light in a room from a warm, reddish glow to a cool, aqua blue one. And this is a cool feature – you can program it to slowly turn the lights on in a bedroom to wake you up in the morning. Which doesn’t help if you are like me and sometimes sleep with a Zorro-like mask on.

Ronda concluded her New York Times article with this: With a few bulbs, I transformed the bedrooms in my home into warm, cozy cocoons of glowing yellow light. Although the mood has done nothing to convince the children that their beds are not trampolines, they do seem to drift off to sleep faster. As for me, no amount of soothing light in a bedroom helps if I’m binge watching “The Affair” all night in the living room. But at least it’s a start.

And that has been my experience as well. I diligently wear my blue blocking glasses, I have a blue blocking screen protector on my iPad and always have the “Night Shift” feature in iOS enabled but my solid night’s sleep is still offset 50/50 by a crappy night’s sleep. But much like taking a multivitamin, it’s gotta be helping… right?

Back to Dr. Tam

Ok, so we’ve talked about light and air quality which are things that people don’t feel like they have a lot of control over. But I feel like you might have some solutions for us to minimize the damage from both of those things.

Yeah, I encourage people to improve their circadian exposure to light. So I encourage people to have a light box on their desk which they can use in the morning, which emits blue light, and to use that for at least 20 minutes. And we encourage people to get out into the natural light at lunch time if at all possible. Go out into some green space and take some deep breathes – which will tie into the air quality. I also encourage people to install software on their computer or wear blue light blocking glasses any time after 4:00 pm. I wouldn’t encourage that before then because it can make you sleepy. There is software you can get, I know we use f.lux which takes out blue light from the screen. Those are a few things.

I also have people use little mini ionizers which improves the local air quality environment around you. You can get them on Amazon – little ionizer boxes. You could encourage your boss to get a larger unit that cleans the air like the HEPA air filter brand – but that is a separate question. But yeah, those are the main things that we would do.

How about plants? Would you encourage people to put plants around their desk to improve the air quality?

It certainly does, but it’s whether you are allowed to. That’s what we come up against with many people – they aren’t actually allowed to use or have plants in the office for, you know, quote/hashtag #healthandsafety reasons, which is nonsense really. But by all means, if you are allowed to have one, get a plant.

Normally this is where I would give you your homework assignment, but instead I asked Tamsin: if she could get you Workplace Heroes to implement one thing into your workspace, right away, what would it be?

The least expensive option would be to have the mini ionizer air box on your desk. The second would be to have a stool, like a Salli stool where by everything you do at the desk, that is encouraged by the Salli stool (and I have no affiliate relationship with them I have just used them) I found that it improves people’s health generally on a daily basis. So that is the one I would advocate, changing your sitting position and really encouraging you to think about your posture in front of your desk.

So there you have it. We have another expert vote for minimizing our habitual sitting in a static position at our desks.

We may feel like the air and light around us are out of our control and that we are at the mercy of the building superintendents but that is not entirely true. With an air filter, some plants and some carefully chosen light bulbs, and maybe a funky pair of yellow glasses, we can become the Hero over our own invisible pollutants.


Workplace Hero is researched, written, narrated and recorded by me Brock Armstrong with editing help and voice acting from Eleanor Cohen. Podcast logo by Ken Cunningham and music by my old band, The Irregular Heartbeats.

Today’s Guest Hero is Dr. Tamsin Lewis. You can find her at or @sportiedoc on Twitter. Today Heroic idea came from the New York Times article Light Bulbs That Help You Sleep by Ronda Kaysen and Scientific American’s podcast A Green Solution to Improve Indoor Air Quality by Christopher Intagliata. You can find a transcript of today’s podcast at

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