Sometimes being a doctor is like being a detective. The patient’s symptoms are the clues. That’s what happened when 55-year-old Pamela came to see me. She had been suffering from recurring sinusitis for about five years, with symptoms ranging from congestion to headaches and fatigue. She had had batteries of tests performed by other doctors—and all had come back negative. She wanted to see if I could help her.
As I do with many patients who have unexplained symptoms, I spent a long time speaking with Pamela about her life and lifestyle while taking her medical history. It turned out that she lived near the beach. This made me think that she could have been exposed to mold because buildings near water are always susceptible to it. Her house was more than 20 years old—and she told me that she was even aware of some mold growth on curtains near the window.
That was all I needed to know. I was sure that her symptoms were the result of a moldy home. Exposure to mold in buildings, also known as “sick building syndrome,” can make us very sick. Many people have unexplained illnesses that could be caused by mold in their homes. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself…
Where It Is
Molds are fungi that grow everywhere—in nature and in your home. An Institute of Medicine report in 2004 (the last year for which information is available) found that at least 20% of all buildings in Europe, Canada and the US had signs of dampness and possibly mold. A disturbing 2001 article in The New York Times Magazine described mold behind the walls of a Texas home as “thick and black and gangrenous, with a dull, powdery sheen that… [made]… it seem waiting and alive.” Needless to say, the residents suffered all sorts of serious health problems, including debilitating memory loss and coughing up blood, and were forced to flee their home.
We can become ill from pathogenic varieties of mold when we inhale spores and spore fragments. The most common type of mold infection results in respiratory distress symptoms, such as coughing, sneezing, asthma and sinusitis. Eye irritation and skin rashes also can be early indications of mold exposure. Other symptoms often include fatigue… headaches… insomnia… joint, bone, and muscle pain… chills… fever… sore throat… nosebleeds… depression… and abdominal pain. Inhaling great amounts of pathogenic mold, such as that found in the Texas home described above, exposes you to mycotoxins (toxic mold waste products) that can cause severe inflammation throughout the body, resulting in heart and brain damage and even cancer.
Most healthy people are not sickened by low levels of mold. (And some mold is, in fact, in every building.) But immune-compromised or mold-sensitive people may be affected by even low levels of mold, and healthy people can be affected by particularly pathogenic varieties of mold.
Recent studies show that mold can be even more dangerous than was previously believed. A 2009 study published in Toxicology and Industrial Health found that exposure to mold was as toxic to people as exposure to chemicals in industrial products, such as insecticides and cleaning products. Both caused decreased balance, slower reaction times and abnormal cognitive and memory performance, compared with study participants who were not exposed. Some researchers also suspect that mold can cause stroke, movement disorders and autism spectrum disorders.
A 2010 study published in Mycopathologia found that trichothecene (a dangerous mycotoxin) triggered inflammation resulting in nerve cell damage and death. The amounts used were equivalent to those in a mold-infested home.
Treating Mold Exposure
If I suspect that a patient has been exposed to mold at home, I have him/her call a mold-remediation company (your local health department can help you find one) that can perform a home mold assessment. These companies can check for moisture problems and take air samples and cultures of any visible mold. They also can remove the mold for you—and help you to prevent future mold growth.
Some people find that simply removing mold from their homes improves their symptoms. For others, treatment takes several forms…
Antifungal diet and supplements. These can help kill off the fungus in the body by starving it of the nutrients that it needs to survive.
Antifungal diet. An antifungal diet includes avoiding all sugars, grains (including bread, pasta, rice and corn), alcohol, fruit juices, potatoes, peanuts, legumes and cheese. Meat, poultry and fish, eggs, oils and most nuts are all fine to consume, as are berries, avocados, citrus fruits and most fresh vegetables—particularly carrots, broccoli and cabbage, which have antifungal properties. After about two weeks of following a diet like this, most patients can tell if it is helping them.
Antifungal supplements. To boost the effectiveness of an antifungal diet, I often recommend that patients try one or more antifungal remedies. One of my favorites: Oregano oil extract, which is available at health-food stores and online. Other antifungal remedies that you can try (and use in combination) include olive-leaf extract… grapefruit-seed extract… garlic… pau d’arco… and biotin, a type of B vitamin. Follow label instructions. If your symptoms do not improve after two to four weeks of taking antifungal remedies, consult your doctor about taking a prescription antifungal medication.
Boost the immune system. To strengthen the immune system, I often prescribe vitamin C and glutathione. Intravenous nutrient treatments including vitamin C, B vitamins and glutathione can be helpful. A homeopathic mold-desensitization formula, such as BioAllers Mold, Yeast and Dust, available at health-food stores, also can help.
Detoxify. To rid the body of mycotoxins, I recommend liver and kidney-supportive nutrients, including milk thistle, dandelion root, chlorella, B vitamins and magnesium. Glutathione also helps with detoxification.
Urine, blood and sputum testing can be performed to determine the type of mold you have been exposed to. Knowing the type of mold can help the doctor adjust the treatment. Other indicators of mold poisoning include a low white blood cell count… poor lung function as measured by a spirometer test… and neurological damage associated with exposure to biotoxins, indicated by a visual contrast sensitivity test.