On February 15, 2012, I gave this talk for a Designs For Health Clinical Roundtable with about 75 health care practitioners calling in from all over North America. You can downlaod and listen to this 80 minute audio file or read the article below.
A 42-year old woman with brain fog, dizziness, and decreased concentration and memory.
A 13-year old, otherwise healthy growing boy, with a sudden onset of asthma.
A 51-year old woman with a decreased and altered sense of smell and taste.
A 42-year old man with a long history of eczema and asthma with a recent full-body exacerbation of eczema.
A 32-year old man with a sudden onset of narcolepsy and cataplexy.
What do all these people have in common? They have been exposed either acutely or chronically to mold and mycotoxins. This, along with mercury toxicity from dental fillings, has been an unexpected source of problems for so many of my patients. Quite often, they come in with “mysterious” conditions that all other therapies have not sufficiently addressed or even explained. And through a proper history, asking the right questions, we have been able to identify mold exposure as the likely cause of their health issues.
How mold harms us?
Mold is very challenging for our immune system to handle. In order for mold to survive indoors and out, it produces toxins called mycotoxins, which serve to kill off any competition for its resources. Outside, mold has many competitors for its survival and, as nature designed, the balance struck does not adversely affect our health quite like indoor mold does. Mold lives in the same environment we do; it likes cool climates, not too much sun, the right amount of moisture, and plenty of building and living materials to feed on—wood, fabrics, ceiling tiles, wall paper, upholstered furniture, books, basements, house plants, refrigerator drip trays, and plaster board. Anywhere there is moisture and no sun, you could have mold.
When we are exposed to mold, our immune system kicks in to gear and produces inflammation—a natural response from the body toward a foreign invader or injury. Inflammation is a good thing when it’s acute. But long-term, chronic inflammation sets the stage for innumerable down-stream effects in almost every system of the body—respiratory, cardiovascular, musculo-skeletal, endocrine, immune, digestive, etc.
To compound the issue, mold spores – the colorful heads of the mold stalks, much like a mushroom – give off toxins that can live on long past the mold itself. And it is these toxins that can further add to the already existent chronic inflammation; and it is these toxins that can interfere with hormones, cognitive and nervous system function.
What symptoms might mold exposure show up as?
This is entirely dependent on each individual. Symptoms can present as: fatigue, weakness, muscle aches and pain, sensitive skin, headaches, cognitive impairment, forgetfulness, “brain fog”, numbness and tingling in the limbs, a metallic taste in the mouth, sensitivity to bright light, blurred vision, chronic sinus congestion, cough and shortness of breath; abdominal pain, irritable bowels, candida; mood and appetite swings, night sweats, difficulty with temperature regulation, frequent urination, excessive thirst, impotence, and menstrual irregularities (1). And this list is by no means exhaustive.
In Chinese Medicine we have this profound concept of “phlegm.” Phlegm can be substantial, meaning phlegm you can cough up or spit out; in other words, it is something you can see and touch. But we can also have insubstantial phlegm. This type of phlegm can interfere with body function like cognitive thinking. What they both have in common is inflammation. Inflammation and phlegm are both results of pathology and a later cause of further pathology when not effectively cleared by the body. So let’s say you are chronically exposed to mold in your bedroom because you have some leaky pipes in the wall adjoining your bathroom. Every night you are spending 6-8 hours breathing in mold and mycotoxins, constantly stoking the fires of inflammation in your body. Perhaps you notice you get hot at night or wake with sinus congestion every morning. With such repeated exposure, your body does not have a chance to deal with the initial exposure so that first wave of inflammation and phlegm never reduces, but instead goes on to disrupt other body processes—you wake with a headache, brain fog and joint pain each morning, for example.
Does scientific research match patients’ experiences?
Science, as always, is a bit behind the curve. Yet it is the curve that drives scientific inquiry. Discovery often starts with a hypothesis: “Could mold exposure cause A, B and C?” And from there, patients like you push the medical community to think outside the box, to ask questions and to look for new answers.
Here are just a few pieces of research that support the relationship between mold exposure and disease:
- In 1999, the Mayo Clinic did a study that found in cases of chronic sinusitis (lasting 3 months or more), 96% of the 210 patients’ mucus tested, an average of 2.7 kinds of mold were found. Acute sinus infections were usually bacterial in origin. (2)
- A 2010 Japanese study found that “home dampness… was significantly related to cough and general symptoms, and classroom dampness was significantly related to nasal symptoms.” (3)
- A 2011 European study found that “indoor viable molds and fungal DNA were commonly found in monitored European schools and adversely related to respiratory health. Schools should be routinely tested.” (4)
- A 2004 Institute of Medicine study found “sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory symptoms, cough and wheezing, dyspnea [difficulty breathing] in otherwise healthy people, trigger asthma in asthmatics, with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in people susceptible to it and in children too.” (5)
- According to the World Health Organization, “microbiological organisms are considered among the most plausible explanations for the health risks associated with indoor dampness.” (6) They go on to say that “…even if the mechanisms are unknown, there is sufficient evidence to take preventive measures against dampness in buildings.” (7)
- And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “over time, symptoms and inflammatory responses become more and more chronic and less and less specific, eventually making recognition of their immunologic instigator quite difficult.” (8)
Clearly, the medical community sees enough evidence to be concerned about the adverse health effects of indoor dampness, i.e. mold. Though the accepted research may not yet cover the lengthy list of symptoms I have given, at least they acknowledge that it does in fact pose a significant health concern.
But it is the last quote from the EPA that most rings true in my clinical practice. A fish does not know it is in water. We are so accustomed to our daily environment, that we may simply overlook the spots on the bathroom wall, the leaky shower head, the persistent night time cough and insomnia. We may mistake what is usual for normal. And the point the EPA is making is that ongoing exposure to mold makes diagnosis of your current “mysterious” condition” very challenging and increasingly difficult to isolate a cause. That is, until you learn to ask the right questions….
What are the right questions to ask?
No matter the treatment approach or the type of doctor you are seeing, what we all have in common is the need to take a thorough history. And given my clinical experience with mold exposed patients, I am now asking each and every patient I see the following questions:
Do you have any water damage at home or at work?
Are your symptoms better or worse away from home/work?
Do you have any leaky pipes? Visible leaks suggest leaks within the walls.
How old is/are your mattress/carpet/pillows?
Do you have any pets? They can track mold spores in the house.
Do you garden? Is there wet dirt abutting the walls of your house?
Do you ever smell a dank or musty odor in any part of the house?
Is your bathroom well-ventilated?
Does your washer or dishwasher or any utility using water not work properly?
Do you live downstairs from anyone? Have they had plumbing leaks or mold problems?
Do you have a basement or crawl space under your residence?
Is anyone else in the house/at work frequently sick?
How often do you travel by plane? The AC system in planes can definitely have mold in them.
Do you have old books? Is your house dusty? Carpet older than 5 years? A mattress older than 10 years? Pillows older than one year? The EPA did a study that found 39 different molds measured in dust. (9)
Though the focus of this article is on airborne sources of mold, food can certainly be another source. The rules are still the same for food mold: moisture, poor air circulation, and food in the form of sugar. Foods that are likely to have mold include: nuts (especially peanuts, almonds, and walnuts), dried fruit, tomatoes (canned or sauce), juicy fruit like bruised apples; bread, cereals, malty foods like beer or vinegar. According to the EPA, 25% of the world’s food crops are affected by mycotoxins, in particular grains, nuts, celery, grape juice and apples. (10)
Asking the right questions serves the profound purpose of helping you create greater awareness of your surroundings and how they may be adversely affecting your health. Without this knowledge the best hope I have in treating you is to simply maintain you and treat your symptoms. In many of my mold cases, until we can find where the mold exposure is coming from, our expectations for lasting results were low. It wasn’t until my 51-year old female patient with the altered sense of taste and smell got rid of the 10 year old carpet beneath her bed that her sense of smell began to return. We have to identify the root cause, the source of the exposure, if we are to have any hope of properly addressing the symptoms. And asking the right questions is where it all starts.
What can you do about it? Treatment and Remediation
Once we can piece together the puzzle of your symptoms through a thorough history, my main tool to combat your mold and mycotoxin exposure is prescribing you a customized herbal formula. I’d give you anti-fungals, anti-inflammatories, and other herbs to specifically address your symptoms. I’d also advise you on proper food choices in order to not interfere with your healing. And we would do a complete course of acupuncture to support your immune system and speed your results.
But until we can identify the source of the mold and get the issue resolved, our job will remain challenging. Once asked the right questions, most people realize they actually know where they have been exposed. Yet sometimes, mold remains hidden. If there is any question as to whether there is mold in your home or place of work, I’d refer you to a mold inspector. When done well, a good inspector can be a powerful ally. It can offer you, your neighbors/co-workers and your landlord/boss proof of the problem. Unfortunately, sometimes even the inspector can either not look in the right place or misinterpret their own findings. And the question of whether your landlord/boss is willing to go through the expense of repairs will always come up. Just wiping the mold up, washing the area with bleach and painting over it does no good. If you see mold on the wall, you know there is a whole lot more inside the wall. Until the area can be properly remediated, I recommend keeping a HEPA filter on 24/7 and, through treatment, I will do the best I can to help you with your symptoms.
There is hope…
If any of this sounds familiar to you, or if you have been dealing with some sort of “mysterious” condition, know that mold exposure could very well be the issue. It is far more common than you think. And it shows up in innumerable and unpredictable ways. And if you are living or working in a moldy environment, I hope this article inspires you to do something about it. There are few things in life we can actually control, and one of them is our living space. Accept nothing less than the peace of mind that comes with knowing your home space is clean and clear and nourishes your body, mind and spirit.
- Mold Warriors, Ritchie Shoemaker, MD, James Schaller, MD, Patti Schmidt. Gateway Press, Inc. 2005.
- “Mayo Clinic Study Implicates Fungus as Cause of Chronic Sinusitis.” www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/09/990910080344.htm
- “Dampness, Food Habits, and Sick Building Syndrome in Elementary School Pupils.” Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Sep 15(5):276-84. Epub 2010 Mar 26. Saijo, et.al. PMCID: PMC2921041 PMID: 21432556 [PubMed]
- “Total viable molds and fungal DNA in classrooms and association with respiratory health and pulmonary function of European schoolchildren.” Pulmonary Environmental Epidemiology Unit, CNR Institute of clinical Physiology, Pisa, Italy. Simoni, et.al. PMID: 221227989 [PubMed- in process]
- “Guidelines for indoor Air Quality: Dampness and Mold.” World Health Organization, 82.
- Ibid, 67.
- “Guidance for Clinicians on the Recognition and Management of Health Effects Related to Mold Exposure and Moisture Indoors.” Storey, et.al. www.EPA.gov. 24-25.
- “Mold Species in dust from the International Space Station identified and quantified by mold-specific quantitative PCR.” Vesper, et.al. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 2100 Dec; 22(8):843-52. Doi: 10.111/j.1399-3038.2011.01208.x. PMID: 18602989 [PubMed – indexed for Medline].
- www.USDA.gov Food Safety and Inspection Service.