4 Harmful Health Effects of Toxic Mold Exposure
4 Harmful Health Effects of Toxic Mold Exposure
When you hear the words “mold illness,” what comes to mind? Maybe you think of “mold illness” as a fringe illness that must only impact a tiny subset of people. Alternatively, you’ve never heard of mold illness and didn’t know that people could experience sickness in response to mold exposure.
However, the reality is that exposure to mold in water-damaged indoor spaces can have tremendous yet underappreciated health consequences.
Read on to learn about four of the top harmful health effects of toxic mold exposure and how to help your body begin heal.
What is Mold Illness?
Mold illness is an inflammatory illness caused by exposure to toxic indoor molds, their harmful byproducts, and other biological toxins in water-damaged buildings. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the most common indoor molds that grow in water-damaged buildings are Cladosporium, Penicillium, Alternaria, and Aspergillus molds.
Mold doesn’t just grow anywhere; it requires certain conditions to flourish inside buildings. For example, mold preferentially feeds off cellulose-based materials, including many construction materials, such as drywall. Relative humidity of 60 percent or higher is conducive to mold growth.
Primary indicators of dampness and mold growth inside buildings include condensation on surfaces such as windows, visible mold growth, a perceived moldy odor, a poorly-maintained air conditioning system. Also a history of water damage, including exterior leaks and leaky plumbing.
Research indicates that a shocking 47 percent of U.S. homes are affected by persistent dampness and mold. Furthermore, this figure is based on data collected from homes where water damage and moisture were apparent. Many cases of water damage and mold growth in homes are far more subtle but no less harmful. Therefore, the percentage of U.S. homes affected by dampness and mold may be even higher than 47 percent figure.
Mold growth inside homes, schools, and office buildings isn’t just an inconvenience; it can significantly impact our health in several ways. As mold grows, it produces mycotoxins, which are metabolites made by mold. Many mycotoxins have inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects. Mold also creates volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can trigger respiratory issues.
Next, let’s dive into four of mold exposures’ most significant health effects.
Four Major Health Effects of Mold Illness
Exposure to indoor mold and mycotoxins can harm our health in several ways. First, it provokes the immune system, resulting in a chronic inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation can impact nearly any body part; this explains why toxic mold exposure can cause a wide array of health problems.
Mold exposure also affects specific systems inside the body. It disrupts gut health and hormone balance, hurts brain function and mental health, and causes problems in the respiratory system.
1. Mold Messes with your Gut Health
Scientific research shows that mycotoxins can significantly harm the gastrointestinal system. For example, the mycotoxin deoxynivalenol, made by Fusarium mold, provokes intestinal inflammation and breaks down the intestinal lining, causing an inflamed, “leaky” gut. A leaky gut, in turn, can cause a slew of downstream health problems, including brain fog, food sensitivities, and autoimmunity.
Another mycotoxin, ochratoxin, disrupts the balance of beneficial and harmful bacteria in the gut, killing off good bacteria and allowing harmful bacteria to flourish. Gut dysbiosis may cause bloating, indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea, just to name a few adverse health effects.
Gut healing is an essential element of mold illness recovery. If you’ve been exposed to mold and your gut health is suffering, a functional healthcare provider can help you identify underlying gut imbalances and implement a gut repair protocol to help you heal.
2. Mold Exposure Disrupts Your Hormones
Chronic mold exposure adversely impacts your endocrine system, the network of glands and organs that produce and release hormones into your bloodstream, subsequently affecting many processes throughout your body. Examples of hormones include estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, thyroid hormones, and cortisol.
For example, mold exposure may trigger hypothyroidism or suboptimal function of the thyroid gland. Hypothyroidism can cause dry skin and hair, constipation, brain fog, and weight gain, among other symptoms.
Mold appears to harm thyroid function by triggering oxidative stress, an imbalance between exposure to free radicals and the body’s ability to quench those free radicals with antioxidants. Oxidative stress in the thyroid reduces its ability to make thyroid hormones and peripheral tissues’ ability to use thyroid hormones.
Mold illness may also drive adrenal fatigue, either causing cortisol to rise too high or dip too low. Elevated cortisol can cause abdominal fat gain, facial puffiness, anxiety, and sleep issues. Conversely, bottomed-out cortisol is associated with fatigue and chronic inflammation.
Interestingly, mold exposure can drive weight gain and weight loss resistance by increasing inflammation and disrupting hormones that regulate hunger and satiety. For example, mold can make your cells resistant to leptin, a hormone that mediates satiety. The resulting “leptin resistance” triggers an increased appetite and increases in body fat.
In addition, elevated cortisol and gut microbiome disruption may also play roles in mold-induced weight gain. So if you feel like you’re doing everything “right” regarding your diet and lifestyle and still can’t lose weight, mold exposure could be a factor.
3. Mold Triggers Brain Fog and Mental Health Issues
Research shows that mold exposure causes several significant changes in the brain and nervous system. For example, mold spore inhalation in mice decreases neurogenesis, the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain. The same study also found that mold spore inhalation caused memory impairment and anxiety in the mice. These findings may also apply to mold-exposed humans.
Mold and mycotoxins also harm the brain by boosting immune system activity in the nervous system. Heightened, inappropriate immune activity in the brain leads to brain inflammation, also known as “neuroinflammation.” Neuroinflammation can drive fatigue, headaches, cognitive impairment, and mood disturbances such as anxiety and depression.
Based on my experience with mold illness and my clients’ experiences, mold exposure appears to drive cognitive and mental health symptoms, including brain fog, depression, and anxiety. Leaving the moldy environment, detoxifying your body, and providing your body with the nutrients it needs to heal can do wonders to reverse cognitive and mental health symptoms caused by mold.
4. Mold Affects the Respiratory System
Finally, mold illness also significantly impacts the respiratory system. Exposure to mold spores and mold metabolites can trigger IgE immune responses, the type of immune response that drives allergic asthma and environmental and food allergies.
When mold spores and metabolites are inhaled, they can also affect the nasal passages and sinuses, causing chronic sinusitis. Shortness of breath, coughing, sinus congestion, and nasal drainages are all common respiratory system symptoms associated with mold exposure.
How to Find Out Whether Mold Illness is an Issue
So, how can you determine whether mold illness is driving your health issues?
For many years, functional medicine practitioners have recommended urine mycotoxin testing, an assessment of mycotoxins in a urine sample. This assess whether a client was dealing with mold illness. However, more recently, urinary mycotoxin testing has come under scrutiny.
Urinary mycotoxin testing may not be the ideal way to assess for mold illness because it is impacted by the ingestion of mycotoxins through food and doesn’t reflect whether the immune system is reacting to mold and mycotoxins.
Instead, mycotoxin antibody testing provides a more accurate test for mold illness. MyMycoLab (no affiliation) offers a mycotoxin antibody test that evaluates IgE and IgG immune responses to mycotoxins. A positive IgE response indicates an allergic reaction to mycotoxins involving immune cells such as mast cells. The IgG response indicates either an immune response caused by ongoing exposure to mold and mycotoxins or an immune response to mold colonization inside the body.
If you suspect you’re dealing with mold illness, it is crucial to test your home for mold. I recommend partnering with an indoor environmental professional (IEP). They can help you test your environment correctly for water damage and mold growth. Check out the ISEAI’s helpful article on how to find an IEP to learn more.
How to Treat Mold Illness
While mold illness isn’t (yet) a diagnosable illness, it is a genuine health challenge and is best addressed with the guidance of a functional medicine practitioner who is well-versed in mold illness. Given the complexity of mold illness and the many ways it can affect the body, I advise against trying to “treat” it yourself. I have occasionally seen this worsen symptoms and lengthen people’s’ healing processes.
To heal from mold exposure, we must first address the moldy environment. Exposure to environmental mold, mycotoxins, and other mold metabolites will continue to cause health problems. Treating mold illness is not advised until you have been removed from the mold-contaminated environment.
When the environment has been addressed, we can focus on supporting the body’s detoxification pathways and repairing systems harmed by mold, such as the gut. Functional detoxification and gut-healing strategies can help. A low-mold diet can also assist with mold illness recovery. By reducing exposure to food-derived mold and mycotoxins, lowering the body’s overall mycotoxin burden.
Mold illness is an underappreciated but significant cause of poor health. If you’ve lived or worked in a water-damaged building and struggle with gut issues, hormone imbalances, brain fog, mental health challenges, or respiratory issues, it may be time to investigate potential mold illness. If you suspect mold illness but aren’t sure where to start, I’d love to help you!
In my private practice, I specialize in helping clients recover from mold illness using functional nutrition approaches, gut-healing and detoxification protocols, and therapeutic lifestyle changes. If you are interested, schedule a discovery call with me to learn more about how I can help!
Lindsay Christensen Bio
Lindsay Christensen, MS, CNS, LDN, A-CFHC, CKNS is a functional nutritionist and health writer with a deep passion for functional medicine. She has her B.S. in Biomedical Science and her M.S. in Human Nutrition and is a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) and a Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist. She is also an ADAPT-Certified Functional Health Coach through the Kresser Institute and a Certified Ketogenic Nutrition Specialist.
In her private nutrition practice, Ascent to Health, Lindsay specializes in helping clients with Lyme disease, mold illness, autoimmune diseases, and mast cell activation disorder (MCAS). She helps clients reclaim their health using functional nutrition and lifestyle changes. At a young age, Lindsay began her own journey with complex chronic illness, including Lyme disease. Which ultimately led her to discover functional medicine and nutrition. The combination of which transformed her health and changed the course of her life forever.
In addition to running her private practice, Lindsay worked as a research assistant and writer for Chris Kresser, a prominent figure in the functional medicine community, for five years. Lindsay has also worked as a nutritionist at The California Center for Functional Medicine for three years. She has written for various health businesses and publications, including Quicksilver Scientific, Paleo Magazine, Well Being Journal, and Global Lyme Alliance. She is also the author of The Lyme Disease 30-Day Meal Plan, a book that provides a nutritional approach to managing Lyme disease.
When Lindsay isn’t working with clients or writing, she can be found trail running, mountaineering, and skiing in her beautiful home state of Colorado.
Rachel Scheer is a Certified Nutritionist who received her degree from Baylor University in Nutrition Science and Dietetics. Rachel has her own private nutrition and counseling practice located in McKinney, Texas. Rachel has helped clients with a wide range of nutritional needs enhance their athletic performance, improve their physical and mental health, and make positive lifelong eating and exercise behavior changes.
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