The air you breathe and the way you age

The air you breathe and the way you age

The air you breathe and the way you age

Unless you are living in a remote area off the grid and are making conscious decisions about everything that you buy, grow, use and consume, the chances are that you are exposed to various levels of pollution, toxins and chemicals every day. Have you ever considered how this exposure is affecting your health, or what you could be doing to improve your health to protect and mitigate the effects on your body?

These days the quality of our indoor and outdoor air is ever-increasingly compromised by pollution, chemicals and environmental factors. Living closer to industrial and traffic pollution sources, exposure to cigarette smoke, damp houses and contamination to the air we breathe, mean that our bodies have to work harder and harder to stay healthy, and we’re increasingly seeing the impacts this is having on our health.

We are exposed to tiny particles of outdoor air contaminants from emissions of domestic wood burners, traffic emissions and from industrial sources. These particles are made up of chemicals, biological and particulate matter that react together creating harmful particles small enough to enter our cardiovascular and respiratory systems and impact our health[1],[2].

Indoor air can also contain harmful pollutants from sources such as tobacco smoke, mould, asbestos and other building materials, solvents and chemicals from household cleaning and gardening products[3]

Air pollution levels are monitored by the Ministry of Health and are considered safe against the World Health Organisation guidance. However, the air we breathe can contribute to breathing issues and chronic diseases. Short term symptoms of exposure to air pollutants can include wheezing, coughing, itchy eyes, nose and throat, chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, headaches, respiratory infections and worsening of existing respiratory conditions (e.g. asthma). Longer term exposure can lead to chronic respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, allergies and many other health conditions[4]

It is estimated that exposure to air pollution contributes to around 7 million early deaths globally each year. On a cellular level, air pollution affects the way our genes instruct our cells to behave and increases the risk of increased inflammation and the development of health conditions for which we are genetically predisposed[5].

As you may have read in previous blogs, one of the reasons our cells age is due to shorter telomere length. This is influenced by most dietary and lifestyle choices and includes environmental exposure.

Air pollution can affect the length of our telomeres even whilst we are still developing in utero through our mother’s exposure to air pollution. In turn this can affect our health and propensity for age-related diseases as we get older[6].

There is not a lot we can do to with regard to outdoor air quality, but there are some measures that we can adopt to reduce our exposure, and help our bodies build resilience and improve our channels of elimination.  Firstly, we can reduce our exposure to some of these contaminants by avoiding areas such as parks when they are being sprayed, or choosing a walk or run using quieter roads – this is especially important when we are exercising and our breathing rate is increased. Secondly, we can ensure we are encouraging healthy excretion and secretion of toxins through exercise, drinking plenty of water and perhaps dry skin brushing.

Inside our homes we have more control through choosing, where possible, natural household, gardening and skin care products.  Another affordable solution is to bring a little bit of nature indoors and invest in some indoor plants.  Back in the 1980s, NASA carried out a study of the plants that counteracted indoor air pollution[7], looking at three commonly found indoor chemicals.  Five of the plants studied were shown to reduce all three chemicals from the indoor environment, so these could be a good place to start if you are thinking of buying some plants for your home:

  • English Ivy (Hedera helix)
  • Marginata (Dracaena marginata)
  • Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum)
  • Mother-In-Laws tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata), and
  • Janet Craig (Dracaena deremensis)


It’s not just about reducing air pollution the added benefits are that indoor plants have been shown to increase positivity and to reduce worries and stress… another common side effect of our everyday life.


Suzy Walsh BBA (Hons)., BNat., mNMHNZ is a Registered Naturopath & Medical Herbalist



[1] Air quality. (2021, August 11). Ministry of Health NZ.

[2] New Zealand: Air pollution. (n.d.). IAMAT.

[3] Toxic air pollutants. (2020, July 13). American Lung Association | American Lung Association.

[4] New Zealand: Air pollution. (n.d.). IAMAT.

[5] Rider, C.F., Carlsten, C. Air pollution and DNA methylation: effects of exposure in humans. Clin Epigenet 11, 131 (2019).

[6] Martens, D. S., & Nawrot, T. S. (2016). Air pollution stress and the aging phenotype: The telomere connection. Current Environmental Health Reports, 3(3), 258-269.

[7] BC Wolverton; WL Douglas; K Bounds (September 1989). Interior landscape plants for indoor air pollution abatement (Report). NASA. NASA-TM-101766.