Exposure to mold can cause a myriad of symptoms. However, the medical and research community cannot seem to agree on mold’s role in more complex illnesses such as chronic fatigue or autoimmune conditions. Some say the reaction to toxic mold is undeniable. Research shows definite correlation, but researchers find that there are too many variables still at play to support a definite connection. The question becomes, what exactly is mold toxicity and what do we know about it?
Mold toxicity is recognized by experts for causing symptoms in animals and humans after being exposed to moldy food. Some have also come to believe that certain serious illnesses could be caused by mold growth in water-damaged structures such as homes and buildings.
Mold toxicity is caused by exposure to mold spores and mold biotoxins (such as mycotoxins), toxic substances that are created by living organisms such as mold and bacteria. When humans are exposed to these microscopic organisms consistently and over a long period of time, the body begins to respond to the poisonous spores.
Symptoms of mold toxicity include:
- Respiratory symptoms such as sinusitis, chronic upper respiratory infections, sneezing, runny nose, shortness of breath, wheezing, and asthma.
- Neurological symptoms of brain fog, memory loss, decreased executive function, depression, and vision issues.
- Chronic fatigue
- Digestive symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
- Inflammation throughout the body.
- A minority population may have a hypersensitivity to molds and mycotoxins, termed Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS) by Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker.
Real Sickness or a Real Sham?
Researchers will say that there are vast gaps in information on who is vulnerable, to what extent, and in what conditions. These gaps in data continue to feed the controversy within the research and medical circles. A 10-year study on “sick building syndrome” showed a connection between chronic toxic mold exposure and increased inflammatory markers, which is generally known as a contributing factor to health issues. Despite the uncertainty among researchers, anecdotal evidence seems to show us that many people do show symptoms after toxic mold exposure and that they respond positively to treatment. How can we determine who needs mold toxicity treatment and who has other underlying conditions?
The Red Herring in Testing
Those suspecting mold toxicity need to seek testing cautiously, trusting only proven testing and treatment. Often, those exhibiting symptoms actually have other issues at the root, such as thyroid, hormone, or gut issues. If you believe you’re having symptoms, ask yourself, “Have I changed my diet, lifestyle, and healed my gut and, if so, am I still having symptoms?” This helps rule out any other root problems. It’s important that you are working with a trusted doctor with mold experience. Often, the most experienced practitioners are functional medicine doctors and naturopaths.
Testing for toxic mold is a fairly new science, and technology is helping to expand it rapidly. New data is being collected to help fine tune this developing field of study. Testing could be misleading because it doesn’t yet give a complete picture of what is going on. Just because a test shows mold to be present doesn’t automatically mean it’s the root cause of all your symptoms. An incorrect interpretation of a mold test could actually distract you away from the real issue at hand. Toxic mold testing is complex and may not give you the roadmap to healing that you think it does.
Who Can I Trust?
To date, the most trusted testing is done by an indoor environmental professional (IEP). These specialists are trained to know what to look for with visible mold, and also the less obvious mold indicators: water damage, leaks, dampness on drywall, ceilings, and floors. An IEP will thoroughly inspect those problem areas of a home or building, including bathrooms, laundry, basement, and HVAC systems. They will collect air, dust, and even drywall samples to test for specific kinds of mold.
Some people choose to test their homes themselves. Mold tests from big box stores seem convenient and easy, but it’s recommended that you avoid these tests. The ERMI, or Environmental Relative Moldiness Index, is a test with the best data to support its accuracy.
You’ve tested your environment. Now, how can you be tested? Working with a functional medicine doctor or naturopath that is mold-literate is your best chance at getting help with the complex testing involved with mold toxicity. Practitioners may order tests for urine and blood, looking for metabolites and elevated antibodies to mycotoxins. Because these tests don’t factor the exposure in diet, they can be difficult to interpret, so you need an experienced practitioner with a good track record.
Is There Treatment?
As stated before, many people who suspect mold toxicity respond well to treatment. The first and most obvious step is to remove the mold exposure, by either removing the source of the mold in your environment or removing yourself from the exposure. The next step is supporting your body’s detoxification systems, but first you must heal your gut before seeking further treatment. A healthy gut will actually bind toxic mold for waste excretion. Once you have healed your gut and know your body can detoxify properly, your practitioner may introduce medicine known to bind the mycotoxins and eliminate them from the body. Supporting your body with glutathione and anti-oxidants such as Vitamins A, C, and E also helps with the detoxifying process. Antihistamines may also be used to reduce respiratory allergy symptoms.
Mold illness and mold toxicity are still developing areas of study. Individuals bring their own variables into a situation, and may not react the same as anyone else in that environment. Each of us carries a unique medical make-up with us into the situation. This is why it is important to listen to your body. Do not ignore its warning signs and work closely with a trusted functional medicine doctor or naturopath.