A stone labyrinth offers solitude for those seeking it at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Picture Rocks retreat center.

Chris Richards / Arizona Daily Star 2005

Internationally recognized mind-body researcher Dr. Esther Sternberg will be the keynote speaker at the University of Arizona Arthritis Center’s upcoming annual conference.

Sternberg, who is the director of research at the UA’s Center for Integrative Medicine and founding director of the UA Institute on Place and Wellbeing, will give a talk about healing spaces, and the relationship between the senses, the emotions and the immune system.

Among other things, she is expected to talk about some of the work her research team is doing with the creation of a ”Green Road” for wounded warriors at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. Her team will use metrics to assess the impact of the space on veterans’ healing and recovery.

The conference will take place Saturday, Jan. 28, at Banner-University Medical Center Tucson, Early reservations are advised. The registration deadline is Jan. 22 and the cost is $20 per person.

The Star spoke with Sternberg last week to talk about how healing spaces can help chronic diseases like arthritis. Sternberg is a member of the UA Arthritis Center and serves on its scientific advisory committee. The following are excerpts from the interview:

What is a healing space?

There are aspects of place that are universally pleasing or calming. There are aspects of place that are universally stressful.

For things that are stressful, it’s easier to figure those out. Think of the most stressful places that one has to go to, like an airport or a hospital.

A maze where you have trouble finding your way is extremely stressful. And I think that is one of the main reasons that airports are stressful. And also hospitals.

Mazes are real big stressors, as opposed to labyrinths, which are just patterns on the floor that you follow. There aren’t walls. You just follow the pattern on the floor and walk slowly. Monks used them in the Middle Ages as a walking meditation. They relax and put you into a meditative state. You don’t think of where you are going.

There are a number of labyrinths around Tucson. There is a website where you can look up labyrinths near you. In my talk I will show a slide of a labyrinth built by the U.S. Navy at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda for the wounded warriors to walk.

What are some healing spaces in Tucson?

Views of nature are universally calming and universally preferred across cultures, ages, gender, occupation, education. A number of studies show that people like to look at views of nature.

Tucson has lots of views of nature. For me personally that’s one of the huge attractions. When I came to Tucson I was completely blown away by the views of the mountains and the desert, and it’s calming. Whereas noise is stressful, nature sounds are calming. There’s a kind of yin and yang to all these things. Too much, too little is not good, but something in the middle is calming.

Putting these features into the built environment, especially in those places that are traditionally stressful like hospitals or airports, is beginning to be done more and more, certainly in healthcare design.

I’m going to show pictures of the Banner Diamond Children’s Medical Center, which is a spectacular example of how to do this right. It’s just gorgeous.

Another place in Tucson that is calming is Tumamoc Hill. I’ve long wanted to do a study on Tumamoc Hill.

How do researchers quantify the effects of healing spaces?

Wearable devices measure activity and heart rate variability and stress and relaxation responses. We published a study on office space in 2010 using similar devices to really understand what aspects of the built environment affect your stress and relaxation response and therefore your wellbeing and health, ultimately.

The research we’re doing now is to try to understand which factors in the built environment contribute most to either stimulating the stress response or calming it.

What do you mean by stress response?

When you are stressed your heart rate speeds up. But also what happens is the variability between the beats decreases. The wearable devices detect the heart rate and the degree of change or the variability between the beats. And there is a mathematical formula that translates those kinds of heart rate measures into measures of the stress and relaxation response.

We are working with the Air Force research labs to develop devices to measure stress and immune molecules in sweat. The whole concept of the research program I’ve established is that if you want to measure the impact of something as complex and ephemeral as elements of place, you can’t draw blood. It will change the outcome of the study because just drawing blood is stressful.

How does stress affect one’s health?

Chronic stress is known to be associated with increased frequency and severity of viral infections, prolonged wound healing, decreased take rate of vaccines, and speeding growth of certain tumors.

Stress doesn’t cause these things. But stress and the stress hormones and molecules contribute to preventing your body from doing its job to heal.

Cortisol, which is the major stress hormone released in the blood, suppresses the immune system. If you are pumping out a lot of cortisol when you are stressed, and you don’t need to suppress your immune system, you suppress it anyway and then you are exposed to a virus and the bug wins.

That is the most important case for doing what you can to design spaces and places that minimize stress, to the extent that we can.

Contact health reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or email sinnes@tucson.com. On Twitter: @stephanieinnes