When clutter is a symptom

by CynthiaYockey on November 10, 2010

Note: Another version of this piece is posted at RightNetwork. My agreement with them is that I can cross-post the pieces I write for them here after four or five days. However, it was so significantly re-written that I am posting my original piece tonight. It is NOT about de-cluttering — it is about exactly what it says: if you find that you clutter and can’t keep your environment orderly and clean, it could be a symptom of a health problem and your life may be at risk.

Here is what I originally wrote:

If your environment is cluttered, whether at home or work or both, the worse your problem is, the more you need to look at your health as its cause. The good news is that when you feel better, you will have the energy and organizing power you need to clear your clutter and make your environment glow with orderliness and well-being.

The first things to look at are your exercise and sleep habits. Aerobic exercise – even brisk walking – for at least 20 minutes helps your body clean house at the cellular level because it increases your circulation. It’s like the cells are better able to throw out their garbage when the blood is circulating more rapidly, probably for the same reason that a quick-moving stream of water washes things away, while water that is slow-moving, or stagnant, does not. Somehow that seems to translate from the micro level to the macro level. My own experience is that 20 minutes of aerobic exercise gives me two or three days of being able to tackle clutter more effectively. However, it took three or four months of exercising regularly for me to notice this benefit because I was so out of shape when I started. So don’t be discouraged if it takes awhile before you really experience the de-cluttering benefits of exercising.

Another part of your daily routine to look at if you are a clutterer is how much sleep you are getting. If you aren’t sleeping as much as you need to in order to wake up feeling refreshed, you won’t have the clarity to make all the decisions necessary for keeping your environment in order. You won’t have all the energy you need, either. Plus, you might see pounds pile on as you eat more calories than you need to get the energy you should have gotten from a good night’s sleep. To learn how to pay off your sleep debt and establish good sleep habits – called “sleep hygiene” – try the “Three-Week Sleep Camp” program, which you can do in your own home, in The Promise of Sleep, by Dr. William Dement, one of the pioneers of sleep medicine.

In addition to improving your exercise and sleep habits – or if you find you can’t because you just don’t feel well enough – three signs that you may have health problems you need to address to stop cluttering are as follows: waking up still feeling tired, daytime sleepiness and feeling sluggish mentally and physically. While sleep deprivation alone can make you feel sluggish, it doesn’t hurt to see your doctor to rule out a thyroid disorder. The blood test to check whether your thyroid is not producing enough thyroid hormones is called the “TSH” test. It actually measures the hormone from the pituitary gland that regulates the thyroid gland. If you need to start taking thyroid medication, it may take a few months to find the right dose, but you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel. You’ll regain the energy and mental clarity you need to clear your clutter.

However, if you still feel lethargic and sleepy even if your thyroid is fine or your thyroid medication is at the correct dose, you may have a sleep disorder. Don’t expect your primary care physician to understand sleep disorders – sleep medicine is so new that you really need to see a sleep specialist to determine if your symptoms are due to a sleep disorder, and if so, ensure it is correctly diagnosed and treated.

One of the common sleep disorders that can be associated with cluttering is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). In OSA, the airway collapses when you are sleeping so little or no air gets to your lungs. However, your brain still tells your body to breathe – breathing against a sealed airway puts enormous strain on your heart and lungs, which is exhausting. Then, when your blood oxygen falls to a certain point, your brain sends a signal to wake up – at least enough to open your airway. What OSA sounds like is at least 10 seconds to a couple of minutes of silence, followed by an explosive snore as the airway opens. OSA is a potentially deadly condition because severe exhaustion, a normal dose of a painkiller or normal consumption of an alcoholic beverage can dull the brain so much it can’t send the signal to wake up.

While the daytime sleepiness associated with untreated obstructive sleep apnea will rob you of the energy and clarity you need to enjoy life and keep your home clutter-free, sleep deprivation isn’t the only problem caused by OSA that can lead to cluttering. OSA also causes oxygen deprivation during the periods that the airway is collapsed. A person with OSA may not be getting air for up to 40 percent of the time he or she is asleep. This can cause damage to the part of your brain responsible for executive function – see here and here – which you need to have in good shape to be able to keep everything in your life in order. Since current research suggests executive function damage due to sleep apnea is resistant to treatment, it seems better to be safe than sorry and consult a sleep doctor if you really just can’t seem to keep your environment in order.

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Stinky November 10, 2010 at 10:51 am

Both articles are excellent and very helpful. I was diagnosed with mild sleep apnea several years ago, but cannot use a CPAP machine, so I trained myself to sleep on my side and my stomach, and that has helped a lot. I have a feeling that once you read this, you will scold me. I suspect that you and I have suffered some similar health problems, and that is why I always ask for more info from you, including how you lost 27 pounds!

Re: thyroid hormones. My TSH levels were on the high side, but my other thyroid hormones were low normal. I finally found a doc who would investigate and we learned that my progesterone levels were very low, and my iron levels were also low. Apparently, both progesterone and iron work synergistically with thyroid hormones, and a deficiency in either one will trigger the thyroid to produce more TSH.

My road to health has been incredibly slow and discouraging, but giving up is not an option, particularly when I have a family that loves and depends on me. Reading your stories gives me renewed faith. Thank you.

CynthiaYockey November 10, 2010 at 11:03 pm


Thanks for sharing more of your story. I’m not going to scold you. But I am curious about why you couldn’t use a CPAP machine. If I don’t post about the weight loss tomorrow, please comment again and remind me.


Stinky November 11, 2010 at 10:08 am

It keeps me awake. All night. After being reassured that I would get used to it, I tried it for a month. Nearly lost my mind! Went from poor sleep to virtually NO sleep. I trained myself to sleep in a position that would keep my airway open. This may not work for everyone, so I do not advise this approach without people working with their doctor!

Nonnahs Driskill November 17, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Oh for goodness’ sakes! This article sums up what I am spending my working life trying to get across.
How did you do it so succinctly?
I have always preferred written words for just this reason. Perhaps I will just point my clients to this page.
(besides, your title itself is worth the visit!)

CynthiaYockey November 17, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Nonnahs Driskill,

“When clutter is a symptom” is based on my personal experience.

People really need to know that clutter isn’t just a result of bad habits or bad attitudes. Healthy people do not clutter. If getting the proper amount of sleep, regular exercise, healthy diet and improved attitudes don’t help — or if someone is too lethargic to manage to do any of those things — then the next thing to look for is an underlying illness. Two of the most common health conditions that undermine or destroy a person’s ability to manage their time and keep their environment orderly are hypothyroidism and obstructive sleep apnea (or other sleep disorders). And since there’s research suggesting that about half of people with hypothyroidism ALSO have obstructive sleep apnea, if blood tests show your hypothyroidism is being properly managed, then a good next specialist to consult is a sleep doctor. People with these symptoms should not delay because hypoxia damages the areas of the brain responsible for executive function — that is, your ability to set priorities and to create order in your environment and affairs. (Obstructive sleep apnea causes hundreds of hypoxic episodes a night.) I’m not aware of any official medical protocol for restoring executive function — I’ve had to create my own, which I will be writing about.

Anyhoo, thanks! And yes, I am delighted for you to point your clients to this post.


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