Want the ultimate n=1 experiment?
Move halfway across the world, from the winter-y Norhern hemisphere to one of the sunniest places on the planet: Playa del Carmen in Mexico.
The contrast couldn't be starker.
Let's consider some before/after photos to observe the difference. First, my situation in the Netherlands, looking out of the window:
You get the idea!
(That's my parents' beautiful house, by the way, where I was staying for a week!)
Then, the situation in Playa del Carmen:
Let's explore those differences in (much) more detail - by, considering, what might change after you move in your health.
Well, in the biohacking scene the idea of moving to improve your health has become very popular lately.
I can tell myself that locations have a huge influence upon health. For instance, late 2020 I visited Helsinki for a few days, then went back to my inner-city place in the Netherlands, and, some time ago, before moving to Playa del Carmen, I spent a week at my parents' rural house.
All those locations affect your health in different ways.
So let's consider the lessons I learned by moving to Mexico:
First off, when I left the Netherlands, we were going through one of the coldest winters in decades!
In the Netherlands, during the daytime, it was -5 degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit). At night, you were exposed to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit).
I was wearing quite some clothing when hopping on the plane, and when exiting the space to enter Cancun airport (which is close to Playa del Carmen), I was met with a ton of heat!
In Playa, it was around 30 degrees Celsius during the daytime (86F), and 24 degrees Celsius at night (~75F).
During the day, that's a difference of 35 degrees Celsius (64F), and at night, 45 degrees Celsius (79F).
The difference is absolutely insane.
Keep in mind that I've experienced cold weather for a few weeks in the Netherlands, and have now experienced the warmer weather of Playa for some time as well!
Why does heating matter for health?
Well, there's a growing amount of science on the use of cold room temperatures to help you lose weight - as a proxy of "cold water immersion" and "cold thermogenesis", the act of using cold water for health purposes (1; 2; 3; 4).
But, from personal experience working with patients, I know for a fact that if you need to spend tons of energy every single day heating yourself, the healing process will slow down or be non-existent.
(For the same reason, I think that exposing yourself to tons of cold is usually not rational for those with chronic conditions!)
Well, one huge benefit of living in a warmer place is that your body has to expend far less energy heating itself up. Of course, if it's scorching you'll also be sweating a lot more, which can have downsides as well.
Nevertheless, the place I'm staying in Playa del Carmen has an almost perfect climate - so all good!
Before living a week with my parents, I actually spent one wintertime in the Netherlands living in an abandoned school building as a property guardian. Due to the very low rent price of ~$300, you got a really big room but for about 6 months the central heating wasn't working at all.
As a result, I could use some electrical heaters but these didn't do the job either. Hence, during December and January, I was living in a room that was heated to 12-14 degrees Celsius 24/7 (~53-57F).
I know for sure that you can and even must eat a lot more food in such a place to feel good.
Moving to Playa del Carmen, my feet and hands were overflowing from blood flow, and legs and arms generally as well. Of course, sunlight also causes the dilation of blood vessels, but, despite an absence of evidence, I think the heat alone increased blood flow.
If you're spending a ton of time in the cold, in Iceland or Finland, my hypothesis is that your blood vessels might be constricted more - especially peripherally.
Moving on to the second lesson:
Sunlight exposure is one of the greatest health promoters on the planet - for many people. I've always felt much better during the spring and summertime months in the Netherlands, compared to the dark wintertimes.
Both Alex and I have extensively talked about the necessity of sunlight exposure, in articles such as:
Let's compare both places once again:
During the dark periods in the Netherlands - between October 21 and February 21 - the maximum UV index doesn't go higher than 0.5. Yes, that's a UV index below 1 - even the US government doesn't recommend protection between 0 and 2 (18)!
In Playa del Carmen, however, the maximum UV index is 8 right now, in the middle of February, which is higher than I could ever achieve in the Netherlands!
Add a 20% increase due to reflections off the sand, and a 50% potential increase form the water, and you'll end up with tons of ultraviolet light exposure!
Tons of studies also show that exposing yourself to sunlight has tremendous health benefits, such as making you less stressful (natural opioids), creating vitamin D, providing your body with red and infrared light that's also found in red light therapy, and more (5; 6; 7; 8).
After spending 4 months without good sunlight in the Netherlands, and arguably even 6, it's hard to imagine these benefits again. Conclusion? The high UV index is definitely a huge plus for health!
Moving brings all kinds of surprises that you didn't think about before you left. Here are 4 different ones I experienced:
Me, getting off an aeroplane, not *looking* so happy because of a missed night of sleep (flying at night) and 6-hour jet lag! And, even though I look grumpy (which I frequently do), I was beyond excited at this point!
Moral of the story?
Even though it's common sense, calculate that you're spending at least 1-2 weeks adjusting to a new place and finding your groove again!
I'm staying in an Airbnb place right now, but I can also imagine that if you're moving forever to one place, that you'd want to do a ton more research than I did. Nevertheless, if you're flexible you're going to do a whole lot better than if you're very dogmatic about your health choices.
Well, there's still a WiFi router nearby, but worrying about it is probably not going to make matters better.
As Voltaire once said: "the perfect is the enemy of the good". If you demand immediate perfection after moving, you're going to get disappointed!
There's very little organic supply, which is a bummer.
I basically have to go to dedicated organic shops to get a reasonable offering of organic foods. In the Netherlands, I can buy 70-80% of my products as organic, as opposed to perhaps 10% here?
Prices of organic food are also a lot higher here.
One pound of Ezekiel bread sold for like $10 in an organic shop. My non-fluorided toothpaste set me back $7 ($3-4 is normal in the Netherlands), and there were some premium versions of $15.
Organic spinach? $3-4 per pound - too much for even me! I'll buy the conventional produce for now and look for other options.
Some people have already recommended me to visit farmer's markets, which is an excellent suggestion probably.
And even then, the number of organic foods offered are far inferior to what I was used to in the Netherlands. So be it! I'll find a solution in time...
Well, when I stepped into the plane to Mexico, I was already missing my parents, brothers, sister, and the kids of both of my brothers.
Also, I knew that by staying away for a longer period of time I would be missing my friends as well!
Sorry 'bout that!
Fortunately, it's very easy to meet new people here, especially in this tourist-y place! I've already build a great connection with the hosts of the Airbnb building, and I'm pretty sure I'll meet tons of people down the road.
I mean, there are beach parties here very frequently, and, the city is vibrant every single night.
Also, I'll probably visit a high-end gym here soon and meet some great people there as well! Options abound...
Lesson? Take action as soon as you arrive at a new place so that you don't end up in social isolation! Social isolation is horrible to your health and just as bad as smoking a pack of cigarettes every day (18; 19; 20).
Social contacts do matter.
In the first week, I've visited many places alone, such as the organic shop, a few beach bars during the day, some coffee shops, etc.
So, if you're not assertive then moving to another location might be more problematic, because it might become very difficult to make new acquaintances/friends!
Before moving to Playa del Carmen, I did tons of research to ensure I was making the right choice.
I had planned everything meticulously.
And yet, things went wrong. I had booked a flight via the US to Mexico, but, the US would not let me in due to the virus, currently, without some additional documents.
Hence, I had to book another flight and did arrive perfectly after that.
So far so good, right?
Only once I arrived here did I get a bit stressed because I hadn't figured out how to cook properly here, where to shop, whether my WiFi was actually working so I could get an income, etcetera.
But, fortunately, after a few days and having most of the stuff figured out, I truly relaxed. The endless summers here in this place are truly a life-changer.
Culture also matters a lot, and, the Latin Americans are a lot more easygoing than us Northern Europeans.
And yet, even after some time, I don't feel like I'm in the steady rhythm I was in my home country, the Netherlands. Of course, that development can be a huge upside: let's hope the 9-5 mentality and routine never reappear!
Of course, not every home has a top-notch filtration system in Mexico - that's not even true in the developed world!
Back in the Netherlands, the tap water was always safe to drink. Here, like in many other countries, tap water isn't too healthy.
So, you'll have to buy bottles of mineral water, which can add up. Another option is to buy purified water, which is much cheaper but doesn't supply you with perfect minerals. Also, "purified" water might not be perfectly purified either!
To get good water in such a country, you can use a Berkey water filter, for instance.
But, as a travelling person that water filter isn't easy to take with you!
So, even though you might drink the best mineral water in the world, if you're exposing yourself to dirty water while showering, your skin will still absorb those toxins! My solution is to soak in the ocean for 5-10 minutes, then shower for a minute to remove the salts, and immediately dry myself with a towel so that I only expose myself to a tiny, tiny dose.
And that's it...
Last lesson already:
Before making the leap to moving to this location I did my research very well. Fortunately, my current apartment is located a little over half a mile from the beach.
Even if you didn't have a ton of information about the place so I had to make some guesses.
First off, picking a place near the shore almost certainly reduces your air pollution exposure. Secondly, I also made sure I picked a place away from the highway and very near the city centre, which ensures that not a ton of cars are driving by there on a daily basis.
Secondly, I used an EMF map to see where all the cell towers are located. Turns out these cell towers are located on the highway half a mile away. Hence, I avoided taking any apartment on the highway.
(I'm not going to give you a cell tower map because they're different for any country. Just try a few related keywords in your favourite search engine and you should be good to go!)
Thirdly, I did book an Airbnb in the city centre, but not immediately in the party area, as doing so will massively increase the nuisance risk. My bet paid off well! If I want to "party" now, I'll just have to walk for 5 minutes...
You might be curious though...
About how all these changes affected me! Let's find out:
How was my personal health affected?
Well, it's very early to say, but, I do experience the very good feelings I usually have during the Dutch summertime. Those "summer-high" feelings are absent during 6 or more months of the year - usually from September to April or so!
At this location, I have to take things very carefully with sunlight exposure, for instance, because I had barely built up any tolerance to sunlight.
Unfortunately, at this point, my judgment is mostly subjective.
I will say though, that spending some time here already has me contemplating about how I could do the same thing every year. However, because I scored a "hole in 1", I'm also beginning to think that there are more places on this planet that equal paradise.
With regard to social connections, even though I'm talking to new people, I do still miss my old friends and family as well. I don't think that problem can be "solved", so, it's basically a long-term downside.
Nevertheless, because I'm a person who derives a ton of health benefits from sunlight exposure (contrary to some of my friends, who don't feel much different during winter and summertime), I think living here does yield my health a net-positive.
But should you do the same?
Do I recommend testing this experiment yourself?
Depending on where you live, you've probably got several holiday weeks each year, at the very least.
And, instead of spending the holiday in your own country or going on a hedonistic holiday with lots of excursions, (not so healthy) food, and God forbid, alcohol, it might be interesting to live a normal life for 2-3 weeks in another country.
Book a flight and an Airbnb, and try living a relatively normal life in the new place for a few weeks. Does your health change? If so, then it might be a good biohack to consider in the long-term, even though relocating is a very severe measure for many, because it entails leaving behind family and friends, most of the time!
I will also say, after some feedback from our writer Christa on this article, that some things didn't change either!
I didn't notice much difference in noise pollution. I also didn't yet start eating the typical Mexican foods but have mostly relied on staple foods for right now (e.g. common animal foods like eggs and sardines and common veggies like spinach!).
However, the question also is how much you can really measure such a dramatic change. I've not covered differences in culture, for instance, but, I can very easily imagine that different people interpret the easygoing Mexican vibe very differently.
You might love the laid back approach or you might hate it...
Only one way to find out though: take the leap of faith and imagine your new life, for a week. Or two. Or three. Or three years. Or three decades....
This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com.
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