Mold can be the covert culprit behind a shockingly wide range of health problems. Cate Montana looks at how it gets into the body and how we can get it out.
After performing her one-woman show on three continents, Mitzi Sinnott returned to her hundred-year-old childhood home in Kentucky exhausted and emotionally stressed. A worsening issue with knee pain eventually drove her to see an orthopedist, who gave her a steroid shot and sent her home.
But she didn’t realize her body was stressed from long-term toxic mold exposure, and the steroid shot put her immune system over the edge.
“I woke up that night and my leg felt like it was on fire, with pressure like I’d never experienced,” Mitzi says. “I couldn’t breathe, and every hour I could breathe less and less. As the days passed, I had no energy and I became acutely aware of chemical odors and the smell of mold in my mother’s home. To top it all off, I started my period and bled for 30 days. I’d never had anything like that happen before.”
She finally dragged herself to a general practitioner, who didn’t have a clue what was going on. “I got back out to the car after my appointment and told my mother, ‘I’ve gotta get out of here. I’m gonna die here.’”
Thus, Mitzi launched into a world where about 47 percent of US houses have mold issues, and 85 percent of commercial office buildings are estimated to have had water damage, mold, and other indoor air quality issues.1
For a year, she lived with an uncle whose house was clean of mold. But as a performing artist who traveled to do her shows, she found that staying in hotels and going to meetings in conference rooms with no proper air filtration were problematic.
Intense chemical sensitivity made it impossible to enter most stores and restaurants, and she was unable to ride in a car going over 35 mph because her weakened lungs were so affected by the pressure. On the road, she often ended up sleeping and eating in her car. Meanwhile, none of the doctors she went to could help.
“You get a lot of strange symptoms in patients with mold-related issues,” says Dr Dean Mitchell, allergy specialist, immunologist and founder of Mitchell Medical Group in New York City (mitchellmedicalgroup.com). “Sometimes they’re sensitive to light or Wi-Fi. A lot of them get headaches and fatigue and brain fog for no apparent reason. A lot of their symptoms are strange and non-specific. It’s only when you start to see a lot of these patients that you begin to put together what they’re complaining about.”
Once mold is determined to be the likely culprit, healing the toxic environment is the first necessary step. However, as Mitzi and many other sufferers have discovered, when it comes to mold, escape is not such an easy option.
After opening a wellness center in Portland, Oregon, acupuncturist and functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner Bridgit Danner (bridgitdanner.com) developed an environmental illness due to toxic mold in her home. After numerous attempts at remodeling and remediation, the only cure turned out to be moving a thousand miles away to the Arizona desert.
Mold spores can be difficult to completely eliminate. For example, just one invisible spore from Stachybotrys chartarum, or black mold, can start an entire mold colony flourishing.
Once resettled, Danner continued to develop protocols to help herself and others recover from mold toxins. She says it can take years to get the toxins out of the body, even if the patient is no longer being exposed to mold.
There are over 200,000 species of fungi on this planet—mushrooms, molds, yeasts, lichens and truffles—whose job it is to break down bio-based organisms, returning their nutrients to the soil. Some molds are highly beneficial, such as the Penicillium mold from which we derive the antibiotic penicillin.
However, many molds found in the Aspergillus, Fusarium, Stachybotrys and, interestingly, Penicillium species are highly toxic, releasing dangerous biotoxins and mycotoxins (toxic metabolic waste products) into the air that can be inhaled or land on the skin and damage other living beings.
Of about 100,000 different mold species, 80 are considered harmful. These molds may range from allergenic (causing mild irritations) to pathogenic (causing infections) or toxigenic (dangerously toxic to all living beings).
Mold spores produce gases very similar to volatile organic compounds. “They get into the bloodstream and circulate into the gastrointestinal tract,” says Mitchell. “The liver tries to detox your body by dumping toxins in the bile. But mold is kind of like a magnet. It’s sticky and it sticks to the bile and then gets dumped back into the intestines and recirculates back to the liver.”
Mycotoxins impact all systems in the body, affecting multiple organs, including the lungs, musculoskeletal system, and central and peripheral nervous systems.2
Aside from respiratory issues like rhinitis and asthma, one of the best-known side-effects of mold exposure is chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS) caused by biotoxins triggering excessive production of cytokines that explode through the body, prompting the immune system to attack its own tissues (cytokines are small proteins vital for cell signaling). CIRS symptoms run the gamut, including anything from fatigue and headaches to excessive thirst, hormonal imbalances, abdominal issues, disorientation, joint pain and cognitive problems.
Mycotoxins negatively affect mast cells in the body, the cells that are part of our connective tissues and work with our immune system. The result is hypersensitivity diseases (allergies), chronic sinusitis, bronchitis, cough and neurological issues such as headaches, nausea and brain fog.3 These biotoxins may also trigger rheumatoid arthritis,4 and studies show they negatively impact the pulmonary system as well.5
Studies have also linked toxic mold exposure to multiple sclerosis.6 Some other general symptoms are hair loss, insulin resistance, insomnia, chemical sensitivity, emotional shifts and behavioral changes, inexplicable weight gain or loss, chronic pain, brain fog, a hangover feeling in the morning even if you haven’t drank any alcohol, and depression.
One reason symptoms are so varied is that they so heavily involve the brain. Studies show that many mycotoxins cross the blood-brain barrier, such as gliotoxin, a mycotoxin secreted by Aspergillus fumigatus.7
Exposure to molds found in water-damaged buildings can cause neurological and neuropsychiatric symptoms; disorders of movement, balance and coordination; delirium; dementia; and various pain syndromes.8 Exposure to mycotoxins is now thought to be a contributor to neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder.9
The study “How Mycotoxins Can Impact Your Brain,” published in the International Journal of Molecular Science in 2011, revealed that certain mycotoxins directly impair neurological function by interfering with and destroying neurons.10
Jill Carnahan (jillcarnahan.com), a functional physician in Louisville, Colorado, who specializes in mold-related illness, cites the following four major mycotoxins known to create neurotoxic effects.
T-2 toxin is a byproduct of the Fusarium fungus species, and contact comes mainly from cereal crops. It kills brain cells in both fetal and adult brains.
T-2 also suppresses glutathione S-transferases (proteins that have the capacity to combine glutathione with organic chemicals) that help metabolize drugs and support detoxification. It negatively impacts the function and production of mitochondria (organelles in the cells that produce ATP—the energy source driving cell functions).
Sources: Corn, wheat, barley and rice
Macrocyclic trichothecenes are produced by various species of Fusarium, Myrothecium, Trichoderma/Podostroma, Trichothecium, Cephalosporium, Verticimonosporium and Stachybotrys. These spores work by inhibiting protein synthesis and binding to proteins and other macromolecules throughout the body, causing neuron death and inflammation in the nasal and respiratory systems. They impede immune system function and affect the pulmonary system, too.
Source: Grows in damp areas in buildings in materials that contain cellulose, such as wood trim, windowsills, wallboard, wood paneling, ceiling tiles and cardboard
Symptoms: Weakness, respiratory issues, ataxia (loss of control over bodily movements, low blood pressure, bleeding disorders and death
Fumonisin B1 (FB1) is produced by several species of Fusarium molds. A prolifically common mycotoxin, fumonisin B1 causes degeneration of neurons in the cerebral cortex and disrupts ceramide synthesis, the formation of a signaling molecule that regulates the development and death of neurons.
It also disrupts fatty acids in the cell membranes of nervous system and brain tissues. It increases lipid oxidation while inhibiting protein synthesis and causes DNA fragmentation and apoptosis (cell death).
Source: Found mostly in cereal grains, especially corn
Symptoms: Lethargy, pressure in the head, lack of appetite, convulsions, liver damage and death
Ochratoxin A (OTA) is released from different Aspergillus and Penicillium species. It damages the DNA, lipids and proteins in the body. It also depletes striatal dopamine, a neurotransmitter released from the forebrain, and is responsible for causing cell death in the hippocampus and other parts of the brain. Striatal dopamine regulates systemic glucose metabolism, strongly regulates our sense and use of time, and appropriate behavior and learning in response to sensory cues.
OTA causes oxidative stress, degrades mitochondrial function and inhibits protein synthesis. It is immunotoxic, neurotoxic, teratogenic (damages fetuses) and genotoxic (damages DNA) and has a very long half-life, accumulating in the food chain and in the body.
Sources: Cereals, wine, beer, grapes, chocolate, coffee, pork, poultry and dairy
Symptoms: Chronic fatigue, respiratory problems, kidney problems, fungal skin rashes, night sweats, dizziness, hair loss, conjunctivitis and hallucinations; linked to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
Mycotoxins strongly impact gut microbiota composition, negatively affecting intestinal health by eliminating healthy bacteria and thus increasing gut pathogens. They can reduce the number of beneficial Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria in the gut and impair the intestinal production of short-chain fatty acids.11
Because the gut and the brain are linked,12 mold’s toxic impact on them both has serious implications that researchers have yet to begin to explore. But it doesn’t take much to see that mycotoxins impairing these functions would short-circuit the gut-brain signaling system, degrading the body’s ability to detect and correct toxin overloads when they occur. And because both the brain and the gut have system-wide influences on every aspect of human biochemistry, it’s no wonder that mold-related symptoms are so many and varied, hard to pinpoint and difficult to treat.
One of the earliest recorded treatment protocols for mycotoxin exposure originated in China some 3,000 years ago. People suffering from Gu syndrome (roughly meaning “hidden worms that putrefy and degenerate”) characteristically resisted all logical treatment and were often considered beset by demons.
“Gu syndrome, generally and simply speaking, is a chronic reaction to some type of infection,” says Eric Grey, LAc, MA, of Watershed Wellness in Astoria, Oregon (watershedwellnessastoria.com). “Lyme is the classic, but parasites like Giardia, bacteria like Salmonella and Shigella, and funguses such as Aspergillus can all be causes as well (or a combination thereof).
“In patients who are susceptible, typically those with other chronic illnesses or who are very weak or under great stress at the time of the infection, even if they clear the infection on lab tests, their body continues to act as though the infection is taking place. From a biomedical point of view, this may be viewed as a kind of auto-immune reaction, or may just be seen as the effects of the initial infection.”
According to Grey, the treatment in Chinese herbalism usually involves complex formulas that contain, at minimum, very pungent, aromatic herbs, qi and blood-building herbs (essentially herbs that help to strengthen immune, digestive and circulatory function), and herbs that have a direct effect on viruses, bacteria, molds and other infective agents.
Confusingly, the actual digestive, neuromuscular and mental symptoms cannot be treated in traditional ways. For example, mycotoxin-related diarrhea must be approached differently from diarrhea stemming from other causes. Especially important is the rotation of herbs, never treating the Gu condition for more than six to eight weeks with any one set of remedies.
Heiner Fruehauf (classicalchinese medicine.org), a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner and the acknowledged Western leader in treating patients suffering from Gu syndrome, says patients need to undergo treatment for one and a half to five years.
Because Gu presents most often as a chronic flu-like feeling and an “aversion to wind,” the mainstay herbal category for treating Gu is a combination of herbs that “release the surface and kill the snakes” (shashe fabiao).
Most Gu formulas contain herbs from this category, such as those listed below. However, there are no standard herbal remedies for Gu because every patient is different and requires a specialized formula.
Bohe (Herba menthae) clears brain fog and relieves sore throat
Baizhi (Radix angelicae) strengthens the lungs, stomach and large intestine; clears the nasal passages; and alleviates pain
Chaihu (Radix bupleuri) mitigates
heat and fever and soothes the liver and spleen
Gaoben (Rhizoma radix ligustici) strengthens the lungs and alleviates pain, headache and pain in joints
Jinyinhua (Flos lonicerae japonicae) is anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antipyretic (reduces heat and fever)
Lianqiao (Fructus forsythiae) is anti-inflammatory and antiviral and helps to mitigate liver problems, neurodegeneration and oxidative stress
Zisuye (Follium perillae frutescentis) strengthens the lungs, stomach and large intestine
Juhua (Flos chrysanthemi morifolii) clears heat from the lungs as well as cough, fever and headache
There are two types of mold testing: biological and environmental.
Biological testing can find out whether mycotoxins are in your body. For example, a licensed acupuncturist or a physician can order urinary mycotoxin screening panels.
Bridgit Danner, LAc, offers test ordering on her website, avoiding the often high costs of initial consultations and lab panels ordered through a doctor’s office.
Biological tests include urine testing; functional blood testing, which looks at inflammatory markers; an organic acid test that assesses fungal metabolites (organic molecules given off by fungus); and markers for yeasts and bacteria.
But testing can be tricky and is best done under the auspices of a health professional. Danner mainly uses the MycoTOX Profile by Great Plains Laboratory, combined with the organic acid test (OAT) and the GPL-TOX test for non-metal toxins.
Mold panels usually test for the most common mycotoxins:
DIY in-home tests on the market can help detect and identify spores in the air or on various surfaces in your home.
If you find mold, hire a professional abatement company to do moisture tests and air sampling to find the source and then take appropriate action.
Thoroughly clean and dry out your home within 24–48 hours after any flooding or leaks. If mold gets a foothold in or under walls, ceiling and/or wall insulation, windowsills, tile, sinks, carpeting, upholstery, etc., airborne mold spores will spread throughout the house, forming new colonies.
Inhaling spores and eating food that has mold spores in it are the most obvious ways people are affected by mold. (Commercial cereal grains are especially subject to mold during storage.) But we can also be exposed through skin contact. Often rashes and other skin issues arise after exposure.13
So, with all of these varied symptoms, how can you know for sure if you’re dealing with a mold toxicity issue? “It’s difficult,” says Danner. “But if you’re having chronic symptoms that, despite all of your efforts, are not going away, and if you’ve been trying and trying, going from this diet to that diet, cutting out gluten and doing supplementation and cold plunges and going to bed early, and doing all these things and nothing is working, I would say look at environmental forces.”
And it’s not just current exposure that needs to be considered. Although extremely difficult to measure, mycotoxin exposure is a cumulative thing.14 If a patient’s mycotoxin tests come back positive, the first thing Danner asks them to do is contemplate their symptoms’ timeline and work backwards.
“We don’t always put it together,” she says. “But when you think back, suddenly you start remembering that dank basement apartment in college where you felt so sick. It takes a minute to realize where the start is.”
Mitzi, who has been working with Danner and other alternative therapists for several years, is sure that her earliest mold exposure started in her family home. She’s also made it clear that she’ll continue to do whatever it takes to manage her sensitivity—move, burn her clothes, do coffee enemas, steer away from grains, eat organic—whatever.
“Thanks to toxic load reduction and strengthening my immune system, following an anti-inflammatory diet, taking chlorella, eating foods rich in iodine and iron, getting lots of fresh air, exercise and sweating, and some emotional work, I can now enter moldy buildings and not feel like my body is being ravaged,” she says.
“I have parts of myself back and am now living a normal life.”
Get out of the moldy environment and get tested. In the meantime, take the following steps.
An anti-inflammatory, organic diet is your best bet when dealing with mold toxins. Avoid:
“The body very quickly gets into a very wicked entero-hepatic circulation cycle,” adds Mitchell, “which is why binders are so necessary to get rid of the toxins.” Binders are ingested substances that grab toxins stuck onto the mucosal lining of the GI tract and escort them out, helping to detoxify the body.
Binders that pull out toxins from bile include activated charcoal or bamboo, bentonite clay, chlorella, zeolite and pectin. Take one to three times per day on an empty stomach and an hour or two before or after taking medications. Take only as much binder as you can handle without side effects, even if it’s just 1/4 capsule every other day.
Danner’s top detox techniques
Vitamin D3 with K2 Boosts immune system
Suggested daily dose: 45 mcg vitamin K2 for every 1,000 IU vitamin D3 once a day
Vitamin C Boosts immune system
Suggested daily dose: 100 mg per day
Liposomal glutathione The master antioxidant of the body
Suggested daily dose: 1 capsule (100 mg) twice a day with food
Prebiotic Feeds friendly bacteria and increases microbial diversity
Suggested daily dose: 2.5–10 g or more per day
Probiotics Support healthy digestion, brain health and neurotransmitter production
Suggested daily dose: 5–10 billion CFU per day
Chlorella High in nutrients and antioxidants
Suggested daily dose: 1–6 g per day
Magnesium Detoxes, aids sleep and hormone balance, increases energy, stabilizes mood
Suggested daily dose: 250 mg per day
Omega 3 fatty acids Reduces inflammation
Suggested daily dose: 500–1,000 mg per day
DAO enzyme formulas Contain diamine oxidase and help cells break down excess histamine
Suggested daily dose: 540 mcg per day
Quercetin Blocks the release of histamine from mast cells
Suggested daily dose: 500 mg per day
Electrolytes Aid hydration, pH balance and nerve and muscle function
Suggested daily dose: 1 or more servings per day
CoQ10 Antioxidant, boosts cellular energy
Suggested daily dose: 1 serving (200 mg), once or twice a day
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