Those musty smells in your basement could point to a hidden culprit behind your chronic health problems: mold.
Mold is a fungus found both outdoors and indoors. When certain types grow inside your home or workplace, you may develop mold-related illness.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of mold-induced toxicity are often vague — like fatigue, gut issues, memory problems, and muscle aches. So it’s easy to attribute them to other causes. On top of that, you don’t always know when you’re exposed to toxic mold. (1)
Due to these factors, mold illness often goes unrecognized and can be a barrier to overcoming complex, chronic health issues. If mold is an evil culprit for you, it’s crucial to identify and address it. (2)
What Is Mold Toxicity?
You may have heard of mold allergies. But mold toxicity, also called chronic mold illness, can cause problems that extend beyond common mold allergies.
Mold allergy symptoms tend to be limited to your eyes, respiratory tract, and skin (such as a runny nose and itchy eyes). Allergic reactions happen when your immune system overreacts to mold spores — dormant forms of the fungi. They’re lightweight and easily float through the air, under the radar. (1)
In contrast, mold illness results from mold growing indoors that produces toxins that trigger varied and widespread symptoms throughout your body.
Water-damaged buildings harbor mold toxins. This damage can result from any water intrusion, such as flooding, leaky pipes, or melting snow. Everyday activities like showering without good ventilation are a danger as well. Warm, humid environments also increase mold growth risk. (2)
Several molds have many different species or subtypes, and some of them are more problematic than others. (3)
Examples of the different insidious mold types include: (4)
Toxic mold growth could happen in any type of building. The most problematic ones are those where you spend a lot of time such as homes, schools, and workplaces. Studies suggest that up to 50% of buildings in North America and Europe may have water damage. Just to be on the safe side, it’s better to suspect a building has a mold growth problem rather than to assume it doesn’t. (5, 6)
Toxins Molds Produce
What makes mold a fear factor is not the fact that it exists, but the toxins it produces. The two main types of toxins are mycotoxins and microbial volatile organic compounds (mVOCs).
Mycotoxins hitch a ride on mold spores or fragments of mold so they can travel through the air. In contrast, mVOCs easily travel through the air on their own, as they are gases. (4, 7)
You take in these mold toxins by breathing, swallowing, or touching them. Plus, mold may form colonies inside you and produce mycotoxins. That’s a terrifying thought. (7, 8)
Mycotoxins are poisonous chemicals mold produces to help it defend its territory from other microbes. But mycotoxins can be very harmful to you — even in low concentrations. (9, 10)
In fact, scientists say that mycotoxins are more harmful than pesticides. It’s also thought that some countries have attempted to use concentrated doses of mycotoxins in biological warfare. (10, 11, 12)
Some common mycotoxins and ways they may affect your health include: (4, 6, 13)
Aflatoxins —These are produced by Aspergillus flavus and some penicillium species, among others. Aflatoxins are linked with an increased risk of liver health issues.
Ochratoxin A —These mycotoxins can suppress your immune system. They can also damage your nerves and impair brain function. Some of this could be due to the oxidative stress — also known as free radical damage — that it triggers.
Trichothecenes —These are produced by black mold as well as some other molds. They can interfere with your cells’ ability to make proteins your body needs. They can also damage nerves, impair your immunity, and trigger oxidative stress.
In addition to the listed effects, mycotoxins can also harm your kidneys, lungs, and mitochondria. (4, 6, 14)
Remember the musty odor you associate with mold? The mVOCs cause those. In contrast, mycotoxins are generally odorless. (13)
Not only do mVOCs smell bad, but some are also toxic. Part of their toxicity stems from their production of damaging free radicals. (13, 15, 16)
Still, don’t be fooled into thinking that a building doesn’t have a mold exposure problem if you don’t smell anything musty. Toxic mold may be lurking even without a noticeable odor. (4)
Horrors of Black Mold
Black mold is the widely known villain of the mold world. All mold is bad, but this one is notoriously sinister and ominous. It’s dark, it’s dreary, and it’s foul. Greenish-black in color, it grows and spreads, slowly oozing black poison into any area it can with its filth.
Black mold comes with a name just as villainous as its reputation. Whereas most of us know it simply as black mold or toxic black mold — an appropriate description — its official, scientific name is Stachybotrys chartarum. This sometimes makes news headlines for "black mold poisoning." (1, 17)
Stachybotrys is a saprophytic fungus, which means that it feeds on dead or decaying organic matter — kind of like a blood-sucking vulture in fungal form. Black mold can grow on many surfaces, but it’s especially fond of places and things that are wet and contain cellulose. Cellulose is found in building materials, bookbinding glue, cardboard, ceiling tiles, fabric, paper, plastic wrap, wall board, and wood.
That means that you’ll most often see black mold slithering its dank way up your walls, which are frequently made of mold-friendly drywall. But beware: black mold may also invade your books, clothing, documents, furniture, linens, and photographs. (18, 19)
Because stachybotrys adores humidity, if you’ve had a flood, leak, or excess condensation anywhere in your home or workplace, black mold may take that as an open invitation to move in. You may not know it’s there until you become sick or start to exhibit symptoms of mold toxicity.
Killing black mold
Stachybotrys is sneaky — sometimes, it will set up shop in your air conditioning unit or under your floorboards, where you can’t even see it. And all you’ll likely get for your hospitality is a variety of ailments or conditions that range from the disturbing to the deadly. Black mold could be creeping in the darkness, just waiting to infect you with its vile toxins.
One of the biggest problems with black mold is not only its high level of toxicity, but also its tenacity. Stachybotrys is an evil superhero, a survivor — it’s robust and relentless. It grows most anywhere in the world, even in extreme conditions.
Research shows that just minimal exposure to black mold can still cause illness. Its spores can sometimes remain toxic for decades even after passing through the gastrointestinal tract. Stachybotrys is not bothered by cold and will survive through winter, and heat doesn’t faze it, either.
In fact, if you want to kill this Superman of mold varieties, you’ll need some scorching hot kryptonite — black mold can withstand temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. (19)
Black mold symptoms
Stachybotrys is associated with damp building-related illnesses and sick building syndrome (SBS). These two conditions are very similar, and both involve illness following extensive time spent in a particular building. But in the case of SBS, the cause of someone’s illness is not obvious (such as invisible mold). (18)
Some of the most common symptoms of black mold exposure are conditions of the immune, nervous, and respiratory systems, including allergic reactions, cellular damage, and inflammation.
Stachybotrys may also cause asthma, airflow obstruction, cognitive deficits, lung disease or pulmonary hemorrhage, and pneumonia. In fact, nearly 22 million people have asthma in the United States, and around 4.6 million of them are suspected to have contracted asthma due to exposure to dampness and mold. (18)
A study on rats suggested that black mold may damage DNA. Black mold exposure has even led to death in both humans and animals. Stachybotrys is so noxious that certain scientists coined a new term devoted just to its pestilence. Therefore, you might occasionally see all the many and diverse black-mold-induced symptoms under the single umbrella heading of “stachybotryotoxicosis.” (18, 19)
Dangers of black mold
To test the dangers of breathing in black mold toxins, researchers injected Stachybotrys particles into the nasal passages of mice. The result was irritation, inflammation, and atrophy of the nose and up into the brain. Similar results were discovered with tests on rat and mouse lungs. When injected with black mold spores, the animals showed lung inflammation and hemorrhage, and many didn’t survive the study. (18)
In several well-documented cases, horses and other livestock that breathed in Stachybotrys or ate feed that was contaminated with it became very sick. In mild cases, symptoms included swollen lips, conjunctivitis, mouth sores, and nasal irritation. As the conditions worsened, the animals experienced blindness, blood problems, hemorrhaging, irritability, motor deficiencies, lung congestion and swelling, and in many cases, death. (18, 19)
The animals’ human caretakers were also affected, either by directly touching the mold-infected feed or by breathing in toxins when handling it. They showed symptoms such as bloody nose, cough, fever, low white blood cell counts, mouth sores, skin lesions, sore throat, and tightness in the chest. (19)
In a well-known case in the 1990s, 37 infants in the greater Cleveland, Ohio, area were diagnosed with pulmonary hemorrhage, and 12 of them died. These cases were not isolated, and many other children have experienced the same symptoms both before and since. Though it has not been proven, many believe that exposure to black mold and the breathing in of its toxins are the primary cause. Young babies with underdeveloped lungs are especially susceptible to respiratory stachybotrys toxicity, which was also seen in studies testing the lungs of baby rats. (18, 20)
Toxic Mold Symptoms: How to Know If Mold Is Making You Sick
Because there are many symptoms, mold toxicity varies from person to person. Practitioners have observed that people living or working in the same water-damaged building may have different symptoms. And some people may not be noticeably affected by the mold.
Some factors that may affect your susceptibility to mold include your health status, length of exposure, and toxin load. Genetics can also make a difference. (4, 6)
Twenty-four percent of people from normal populations have a certain HLA gene called HLA DR. This means that about one in four people are more genetically susceptible to mold toxicity. If you have these genetics, your immune system doesn’t readily tag mold toxins to get rid of them. They may build up and make you sick. (21)
Still, this doesn’t mean the rest of the population can tolerate excessive mold exposure. A severe mold problem can also affect healthy people. But only sensitive people with certain genetics may be affected by smaller amounts of mycotoxins. So, in a sense, no one is safe.
Mold exposure symptoms
There’s no “clear-cut” list of signs and symptoms that specifically point to mold illness. You may not even recall or be aware you’ve been exposed to mold. But one possible clue is a sudden, unexplainable downturn in your health.
You may be given a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, or irritable bowel syndrome. But this is overlooking the root cause.
For example, in a study of people with CFS, about 90% had spent significant time in a water-damaged building. And 93% of the people had at least one type of mycotoxin in their urine. In contrast, healthy people had no detectable urine mycotoxins. The researchers theorized that mitochondrial damage from mold toxicity was causing fatigue in the CFS group. Aflatoxins, ochratoxin A, and trichothecenes all can cause mitochondrial damage. That can lead to reduced energy production. (22)
Mold can also trigger inflammation. One study found that people working in damp buildings produced anywhere from 2 to 1,000 times more inflammatory messengers than those who don’t work in these environments. (6, 23)
Brain scans of people with mold illness suggest inflammation can lead to structural brain changes and nervous system dysfunction. That may contribute to hypersensitivity to chemicals, foods, and other items that didn't previously bother you. (24)
Chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS)
An ongoing inflammatory response to mold or other biotoxins can lead to chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS), also referred to as biotoxin illness. In this condition, inflammation affects multiple body systems.
Chronic exposure to a water-damaged building is the most common trigger of CIRS. Chronic Lyme disease is another cause. Some people have both. That’s a double whammy to your system. (25)
The following can be linked to CIRS from mold-induced toxicity: (4, 6, 26, 27)
Brain — Brain fog, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, problems taking in new information, trouble finding words
Digestive system — Abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, food sensitivities, leaky gut, metallic taste in mouth, nausea, vomiting
Immune system — Autoimmune conditions, flu-like symptoms, overreactivity to foods and chemicals, poor immunity
Mental state — Anxiety, depression, irritability, mood swings
Muscles and skeleton — Joint pain, morning stiffness, muscle pain
Nervous system — Dizziness, headaches, “ice-pick-like” pain, numbness, poor balance and coordination, seizure-like events, skin sensitivity to light touch, static shocks, temperature regulation problems, tremors, tingling
Respiratory system — chest tightness, chronic sinus congestion, cough, runny nose, new-onset or worsening asthma, shortness of breath, sneezing, sore throat
Scent sensitivity — Unpleasant symptoms upon exposure to chemicals, fragrances, chemicals, and other odors (multiple chemical sensitivity)
Skin — Dryness, irritation, rashes
Sleep — Insomnia, frequent waking during sleep, night sweats
Urinary system — Incontinence, Increased urination, urgency
Weight — Appetite swings, weight gain or weight-loss resistance
Many of these symptoms could also be due to reasons other than mold toxicity and CIRS. That’s why mold illness is often overlooked or misdiagnosed. (4, 6)
Mold Toxicity in Humans
The conventional medical community is slow to acknowledge that chronic mold-induced illness is common. However, many functional and foundational medicine practitioners have expertise in mold toxicity and CIRS.
A common and simple test for mold toxicity is a urine mycotoxin test. Excreting an elevated level of mycotoxins is a sign of mold illness. Still, if your body is holding onto these toxins, your level may be falsely low. (4, 28, 29)
Some functional medicine doctors also check specific immune system and inflammatory markers via blood tests. Examples are C4a, TGF Beta-1, and MMP-9. Elevated levels of these markers don’t prove you have mold illness, but they contribute to the evidence. (21)
Urine mycotoxin and inflammatory markers are best considered in the context of other signs and symptoms of mold illness, including: (30)
Chemical sensitivity — Do you have symptoms, such as cough, headache, or nausea, when exposed to various chemicals? Examples include cleaning products, detergents, exhaust fumes, hair products, paints, perfumes, printer ink, street dust, tobacco smoke, and varnishes.
Continual infections — Do you have recurrent infections, such as sinusitis or tonsillitis? Or do you seem to have a weak immune system? These can be early signs of mold illness.
History of mold exposure —Do you recall spending significant time in a water-damaged building (regardless if you had symptoms at the time)? Or did symptoms start when you moved into a different home/apartment or workplace?
Odor sensitivity — Have you developed a hypersensitivity to smells, particularly mold? For example, you may smell mold on other people’s clothes or develop a keen ability to smell mold in buildings.
Sick building syndrome — This is a condition where symptoms can flare up when entering a particular building. Do you feel worse when you enter certain buildings, such as your home, office, or school? Do you feel better when you spend a few days away from these buildings?
The more of these criteria you meet, the more likely it is you have mold-related toxicity. And if you meet all five criteria, it’s more likely your mold illness is advanced and longstanding.
How to Address Mold Toxicity
Is mold toxicity reversible? Yes. But to recover from mold illness, you need to support your body’s natural detoxification and drainage systems. It’s also beneficial to support your immune system, mitochondria, oxygen status, and thyroid gland.
Here are some top strategies to help with your mold cleanse.
Bind mold toxins
If you have mold illness, your body needs help getting rid of the horrible mycotoxins. Sequestering agents are commonly used for this. They bind mycotoxins in your gut so you can excrete them. (4)
Some physicians use a drug called cholestyramine to bind mycotoxins. But it can damage your mitochondria. That’s bad news. Your mitochondria support your immune function, and you need that support to fight your mold-related illness. (31, 32)
However, other alternative binders can help tightly bind toxins to help remove them from your body via your stools without hurting your mitochondria. Remember, mold and mycotoxins can affect all organ systems, not just your intestines. (33)
Boost energy, oxygen, and thyroid function
Mycotoxins wreaking havoc with your mitochondria results in less cellular energy, which can also decrease your ability to fight mold illness. (28, 34)
Mold can also squelch your oxygen levels. Your mitochondria need oxygen to generate energy efficiently. Support your mitochondria to restore mitochondrial function. (35)
Additionally, mold exposure can hamper thyroid gland function, so supporting it may also help. (36)
Before binding or removing any unwanted substances from your body, it’s important to have good drainage. Make sure that your bowels are moving two or three times a day when you’re detoxing. Supporting your drainage pathways helps prevent mold toxins from getting backed up and reabsorbed into your body.
Natural herbs can help keep you regular, support drainage and detox, and keep your lymphatic system draining to get rid of mycotoxins.
Support your liver
The liver is your main detox organ. But processing a big load of mycotoxins may cause oxidative damage to your liver cells. (37, 38)
It's crucial to support your liver to:
Enhance liver function and bile flow
Increase mitochondrial function
Provide antioxidant protection
Bile flow is critical to efficient detox. Your liver processes toxins from your blood and deposits them into bile. You excrete some of this toxin-laden bile via your stools. Glutathione — a powerful antioxidant your body can make — also supports your liver. But mold toxicity may deplete your glutathione. This leaves your liver cells vulnerable to damage. (4)
Sweat it out
Another way to get rid of mold toxins is via sweating. You can promote this in a far-infrared sauna or with regular physical activity. For example, ochratoxins have been found in human sweat. More studies are needed to determine what other mycotoxins are expelled this way. (4, 39)
Regardless, you’ll reduce your overall toxin burden when you sweat. Chemicals and heavy metals have also been found in sweat. Lowering your toxin levels from all sources supports your recovery from mold illness. (4)
Sweating sounds simple, but take it slow. Gradually increase the length of your “sweat session.” Remember to keep up your water intake, too.
If you release toxins too fast, you may end up feeling miserable. This is known as the Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction, or simply “herxing.” When you are experiencing herx symptoms, it’s because your body has become overwhelmed by detoxing too quickly.
Target other pathogens
Mold illness can inhibit your immune system. Then, chronic infections — such as Lyme disease — may flare and parasites may move in.
On the flip side, parasites and other infections can weaken your immune system. That makes you more vulnerable to mold toxicity.
Either way, kicking out unwanted critters helps reduce the strain on your immune system.
Moreover, mold spores may “hide” inside parasites. And, some parasitic worms can block your bile ducts, interfering with toxin drainage. This means you may not be able to recover fully from mold illness until you give parasites the boot. (40, 41)
Does Your Home Have Mold?
You’ll be fighting an uphill battle if you continue to live or work in a moldy building. Because mold loves moisture, flooding poses a significant risk for mold growth. Landscaping that slopes toward a building instead of away from it encourages water intrusion. Something as common as a dishwasher, faucet, or leaky roof also invites mold growth. Damp basements and window condensation can also be a haven for mold. (42)
But how do you know for sure if you have a mold problem?
Often, you can see or smell mold — but not always. You may also see areas that have visible water damage. This is a red flag that there’s possible mold growth.
If you suspect you have a mold problem, you can start with a few simple tests yourself. Certified mold inspectors are also available but vary in quality. Here’s a closer look at these options:
Dust samples — A quality dust sample test is the Environmental Relative Mold Index (ERMI). Vacuum or wipe up dust with a special cloth, then send it to a lab. Using DNA analysis, this tells you the types of mold and density. This is more accurate than tape and mold plate samples. It also may be a more accurate test for mold than indoor air sampling used by professional inspectors. (43)
Moisture meter — You can buy a moisture meter at a hardware store. Place its probe against a surface, such as a wall or woodwork, to see if it has an elevated moisture level. The acceptable moisture level varies with the material you’re testing.
Mold plates — Set out specially prepared Petri dishes in various rooms to catch mold spores. Also collect a sample outside for comparison. Send them to a lab for analysis. A drawback of this test method is that some toxic molds don’t commonly settle on mold plates.
Professional inspection — The tools and quality of professional inspectors vary. They commonly use indoor air sampling. However, that’s more helpful when combined with ERMI testing. Certified mold inspectors with training from the Building Biology Institute have a holistic approach.
Tape samples — If you see something that looks like mold, you can do a tape sample. Per the specific lab’s instructions, press clear tape over the suspicious area and send it for analysis. This tells you what kind of mold it is and how dense the growth is.
Regardless of how you identify a mold problem, getting rid of it is essential for your health.
What to Do If Your Home Is Mold-Infested
First, you need to identify the source of water intrusion and fix it. A leaky roof, pipe, or broken air conditioner will only create more issues after mold remediation.
Fixing an extensive mold problem is best left to professionals. When you disturb mold-infested materials, the spores and toxins spread like dandelion seeds in the wind. Attempting to tackle it yourself could make a bad problem much worse. (4)
When looking for a professional mold remediator, some of the questions you should ask are: (44)
Are you certified in mold remediation? Examples of major certifying groups are the American Council for Accredited Certification (ACAC) and the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification (IICRC).
How do you document your work? This should include photos of damaged areas. The company should also provide an itemized cost estimate before starting.
How do you contain mold-contaminated areas? This generally includes using thick plastic sheeting to seal off the moldy area. Remediators also use indoor air scrubbers with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. These should be vented to the outdoors.
How do you clean your equipment? Besides air scrubbers, remediators also use HEPA vacuums. Ask what measures they take to avoid contaminating your house with their equipment. Do they change HEPA filters between jobs and sanitize their equipment?
How do you dispose of moldy material? The moldy debris should be double-bagged before removing it from the building.
Remediating the structure of your house is one thing. Soft goods like books, curtains, and pillows are another matter. Remediators may be able to restore some of them. Depending on the degree of mold damage, visible mold, and your degree of sensitivity, you may need to get rid of some items. (4)
If you’re renting an apartment, it may be easier to move out of the moldy building. Just be careful not to take mold-contaminated items with you.
Overcoming Mold Toxicity
The internet, newspapers, and TV news programs are filled with real-life horror stories involving mold: People becoming sick with a range of ailments, like coughing up blood, tremors, vomiting, and even mental confusion.
Families are forced to evacuate their mold-ridden homes suddenly, in the middle of the night, leaving everything they own behind. But if they stay, mold could continue to poison them every minute they remain.
Chronic mold illness can leave you feeling stuck in a super-sensitive mode and uncertain about how to get better. But many individuals have beat mold toxicity. So can you.
First, stop any water damage and minimize your exposure to mold. That includes addressing mold problems in your home or workplace. This often requires professional remediation.
Once you address the source of mold, you can focus on detoxification. Binders can help get rid of mold toxins in your body and provide additional support. Use natural aids to support drainage, plus your mitochondria and oxygen levels.
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