By Dr. Mercola
Illnesses caused by mold exposure are a growing problem that few people are aware of, including most primary care physicians.
Environmental health experts are seeing increasing numbers of individuals with a complex myriad of symptoms directly related to mold exposure.
This has resulted in the proposal of a new term to describe this multi-faceted syndrome: Mixed Mold Toxicosis.
Because mold-related disorders are so often unrecognized and misdiagnosed, I have been posting a series of articles about mold and its potential dangers, as well as approaches to treatment.
In the first article, I gave you an overview of the types of mold and the numerous mycotoxins molds can produce, as well as a few tips about how to go about mold remediation if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having a mold-infested home.
In the second article, I outlined the range of health problems that can be directly caused by mold exposure and recommendations about how to find a knowledgeable physician.
In this third article, my focus will be on how you can regain your health after being poisoned by mold, what your best options are for treatment, as well as what to avoid.
Accurate Information Can Shorten Your Road to Recovery
Unfortunately, there is no precise formula for rebuilding perfect health if you have been damaged by mold or its toxins. No one set of interventions will work for everyone. Treatment depends on many factors—the type of mold you were exposed to, length of exposure, your overall health, medications, allergies, genetics, and a host of other factors.
Your best approach is to find a well-informed physician who has expertise in environmental medicine. Together you can devise an appropriate treatment plan, based on your own unique physiology and situation.
That said, there is much to be learned from those who are on the other end of what you’re going through. You are definitely not alone! By finding some good resources and arming yourself with the best information, you’ll decrease the amount of time-consuming “trial and error” along your path to recovery. Many people have suffered for years because they simply didn’t have information like what I am presenting in this report.
One excellent resource is the book Mold: The War Within by Kurt and Lee Ann Billings. The Billings learned the hard way about the damaging health effects of mold—and the level of ignorance about mold’s effects by the medical profession as a whole.
Living in a home in the outer impact zone of Hurricane Katrina, the Billings family suffered a progressive array of symptoms for which their physicians had no solution. They later discovered their illness was due to mold infestation in their home. What started as tightness and burning in their chests and itchy eyes soon progressed into severely diminished lung capacity, thyroid malfunction, and numerous other symptoms that did not resolve, despite moving out of their home.
After extensive research and eventually recovering their health, they wrote the book Mold: The War Within in hopes of educating a poorly informed and disadvantaged public about Mixed Mold Toxicosis. Many of the suggestions I’ll be making come as a direct result of the diligent footwork they have been kind enough to share in the form of a book, for which we can all be grateful.
Physicians All Too Quick with the Prescription Pen
In the early stages of their road to recovery, the Billings went through many physicians who either didn’t believe mold was behind their suffering, or whose treatments were little more than shots in the dark. When they did eventually find physicians who agreed their problems were related to mold poisoning, they offered little help other than prescribing dangerous antifungals and other drugs that contributed nothing to their recovery.
It took years to find the help they needed. I suspect this experience is probably not unique to the Billings family, as the treatment of mold-induced illnesses is an area for which most physicians are simply ill equipped. All too often, drugs are prescribed that don’t address the underlying problem and have side effects that further compromise immune response, further impairing your body’s natural ability to heal itself.
As an example, consider four of the common drug approaches to treating fungal infections (of which mold is just one type): Nasal corticosteroids, antibiotics, antidepressants, and antifungal medications.
Nasal Steroid Inhalers and Cortisone
Nasal steroid inhalers have become very commonly prescribed for chronic sinusitis. Because people often experience short-lived relief from symptoms, they sometimes believe this treatment is working—at least, initially.
But is it really?
The steroid may temporarily decrease inflammation, which may make you feel a bit better for a short period of time. However, steroids suppress your immune response. If your immune response is compromised, then the infection is actually encouraged, which perpetuates the underlying problem.
It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire…
The fact that steroids suppress your immune system is no secret. Just read the package insert or patient information sheet for any steroid medication—it will warn you that exposure to pathogens like chicken pox or measles while using the drug could result in serious complications, even death, due to immunosuppression.
Board certified environmental medical specialist and pediatric allergist Doris Rapp states that cortisone (a steroid drug) tends to allow infections that normally would be confined to a certain area of your body to spread to other parts of your body. Dr. Rapp is concerned this may be having dire implications for asthmatic children.
Asthma, like sinusitis, often has a fungal origin that is missed in children and adults, so is often inappropriately treated by medical practitioners. Physicians usually prescribe cortisone and steroid inhalers if you or your child has asthma. In fact, cortisone has been one of the “preferred” methods of treating asthma in the U.S. since 1976. And since that time, the mortality from asthma has TRIPLED in the U.S.
The last thing you want to do if you have a fungal infection is suppress your body’s ability to fight it! Yet, that’s precisely what these steroid medications are doing.
Gross Misuse of Antibiotics
You learned in the first article that research suggests more than 90 percent of sinus infections are fungal in origin. Yet more than 90 percent of physicians continue to believe that the vast majority of sinus infections are bacterial—so they prescribe antibiotics that target bacteria, not fungi. Antibiotics create a fungus-friendly intestinal environment. Along with killing the bad bacteria, they kill off your good bacteria and yeast that would naturally keep the pathological fungi at bay. Without these good bacteria, fungi like mold are allowed to spread, unchecked.
Antibiotics (the kind that target bacteria) will not kill mold in sinus cavities. So, if more than 90 percent of upper respiratory infections are fungal, and physicians are throwing antibiotics at them, this points to an enormous number of infections that are being grossly mistreated.
Add to that a steroid nasal inhaler that suppresses your immune response, and you have a recipe for rampant fungal infection that can spread to the rest of your body and possibly progress into Mixed Mold Toxicosis, making you VERY ill.
When the first round of antibiotics doesn’t work, physicians will often try a different type of antibiotic, which of course won’t work either because they are still not treating the right problem. It is understandable, then, how a person suffering this vicious cycle not only becomes more ill, but also frustrated, depressed and hopeless about their situation. And these mood changes may lead to the next drugs to be prescribed: antidepressants.
Antidepressants: “It’s All In Your Head”
Fungal toxins can affect your brain, and if so, alter your emotional state. Neurological symptoms are commonly seen with mold toxicity. This phenomenon, combined with the fact that mold exposure is often associated with psychologically traumatic environmental disasters such as hurricanes and floods, makes for a complex clinical picture that can superficially appear to the uneducated clinician as depression, anxiety, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Therefore, it’s not uncommon for people suffering from chronic mold-related health problems to be prescribed antidepressant drugs, as if to say the problem is all “in their heads” and lacks any physiological cause. If your psychological symptoms are caused by fungal or chemical exposure, an antidepressant will DO NOTHING to neutralize the toxins causing your psychological symptoms, much less your physical symptoms!
Antidepressants can do more damage than good and come with a slew of potentially serious side effects, to say nothing of failing to address the underlying cause.
Antifungal Drugs… Bye Bye Liver
As a group, antifungal drugs are quite toxic, especially to your liver. For example, the drug Lamisil (terbinafine), used to treat toenail fungus, is so toxic that its manufacturer Novartis warns you in their product insert that Lamisil has resulted in liver failure, the need for liver transplants, and death. Lamisil can also cause loss of taste or smell, depression, suppressed blood cell counts, skin reactions and development of lupus erythematosus (an autoimmune disease). Yet, it is commonly prescribed for toenail fungus because it concentrates in nail tissue.
Nystatin is another antifungal that is used both orally and topically for Candida overgrowth. However, nystatin is poorly absorbed by your gastrointestinal tract and is not intended to treat mold infections or systemic fungal disease.
There are several other oral antifungals, in addition to a number of intravenous antifungals with even scarier side effect profiles.
The reason most antifungal drugs are so toxic has to do with the similarity between your body’s cell membranes and fungal cell membranes. Fungal antibiotics attack the cell membranes of the fungus, and when they do, they also damage human cell membranes. These are some of the most dangerous drugs on the market and are best avoided. Clearly, drugs are not the answer if you’ve been poisoned by mold.
So, what IS the answer?
Cutting Off the Fungal Food Supply
It comes as no surprise to me that Kurt and Lee Ann Billings found the most beneficial intervention in their recovery was a radical change in diet. What they did was cut out every food that fuels fungal growth—namely, sugars, grains and grain-based foods, and simple carbohydrates. By eliminating milk, bread, crackers, pasta, cereal, nearly all fruit, and anything made from refined white flour, they literally STARVED the mold out of their bodies.
Fungi, including yeast and molds, need sugar in order to survive. So what you eat really matters, since any organism living in your body depends on your diet to sustain it. Fungi will thrive on a diet high in fructose, sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugar) and other sugars.
This is not new information. Low sugar diets have been popularized in the battle against Candida overgrowth (Anti-yeast diet, Candida Diet, etc.), and mold thrives in similar conditions as yeast. It makes perfect sense that people with fungal infections begin to regain their health when they begin taking away the fungus’ food supply.
Sugar also suppresses your immune system and commonly contains mold contamination itself, which are two good reasons to avoid it. But cutting out sugar and grains may not go far enough.
Top 10 Foods to Avoid if You have Mold Sensitivity
People who have been exposed to toxic mold can become “sensitized” in such a way that they react to a variety of different agents in their food and environment, as if they are allergic to them. It may take only a very minute exposure to trigger a major recurrence of symptoms. So you must take steps to make your environment as mold-free as humanly possible—so that you’re not breathing fungi or eating fungi.
There are several types of food that should be avoided if you are mold-sensitive because they are subject to mold contamination. In their book, the Billings include a list of the top-ten mycotoxic foods, compiled by David A. Holland, MD and Doug Kaufmann, which I’m including for you below. As you can see, many of those top-ten foods are grains.
|1. Alcoholic beverages: Alcohol is the mycotoxin of Saccharomyces yeast (brewer’s yeast), and often contains other mycotoxins from mold-containing fruits and grains||6. Corn: Universally contaminated with a variety of fungal toxins|
|2. Wheat and all wheat products||7. Barley|
|3. Rye||8. Sorghum: Used in a variety of grain products and alcoholic beverages|
|4. Peanuts: Often contaminated with dozens of mold types, one of which is cancer-causing aflatoxin||9. Sugar from sugar cane and sugar beets|
|5. Cottonseed and cottonseed oil||10. Hard cheeses|
Regarding peanuts, a 1993 study reportedly identified 24 different types of fungi just on the outside of the peanuts in their sample—and these peanuts had already been sterilized. One of the mycotoxins frequently found on peanuts is aflatoxin, which is a known human carcinogen. In terms of hard cheeses, cheeses like Gouda are made with yogurt-type cultures such as lactobacillus, rather than fungi, so these are a better alternative.
There are often fungal components used in food manufacturing that are not necessarily listed on the label. Take soy sauce, for example. Authentic soy sauce is fermented by a fungus, which is what gives soy sauce its distinctive flavor. If your immune system is overly reactive and sensitized, something like this can trigger a recurrence of illness as your body interprets it as a foreign invader, and you jump back into the symptom-producing antigen-antibody cycle.
The Billings wrote that they also reacted adversely to vinegar, beans and canned tomato products.
Basically, the closer you stick to a basic diet of fresh organic vegetables, lean organic meats, and fresh, pure water while recovering, the less risk you’ll have of additional mold exposure and reactions. It’s wise to avoid eating out because you just can’t control what is put into your food unless you prepare it yourself. You have to go beyond being a good label reader and become a “food detective.”
You may want to do some vegetable juicing to accelerate your healing. Juicing helps alkalize your body, and for the most part, fungi can’t grow in an alkaline environment. Juices assimilate very quickly into your system with very little effort or energy by your digestive tract—like an intravenous infusion of whole food nutrition! Juices should be consumed immediately after being juiced (within 15 minutes is best) as the enzymes degrade rapidly thereafter.
Probiotics: Mold’s Worst Nightmare
Probably the most important supplement for recovering from mold-induced illness is a good probiotic. Your gastrointestinal tract is your first line of defense against mold and its toxins, and having a GI tract populated with beneficial flora is crucial for optimal immune function. Probiotics help repopulate your GI tract with these beneficial bacteria.
The “good” bacteria help keep the “bad” bacteria (and other organisms like mold and yeast) in check. This is why, as discussed earlier, antibiotics are so counterproductive if you have a fungal infection.
Without the proper microflora, fungi and their toxins can break through the walls of your intestinal tract and enter your bloodstream. When your bowel is toxic, the rest of your body soon follows. Sensing this toxicity, your immune system reacts with a vengeance, trying desperately to overcome this perceived assault, which results in systemic inflammation. And when your blood is full of toxins, your organs responsible for cleansing it (liver, kidneys, skin, lymph) become overloaded and multi-system health problems can occur—which is what many people experience after mold poisoning.
Your immune system produces antibodies to the mold (the antigen). If your overload is severe enough, you can experience “serum sickness,” which can appear as a severe, unrelenting flu-like syndrome. The worst cases can take years to resolve unless aggressive action is taken.
It is important to remember that the catalyst for the entire illness is disruption of healthy intestinal flora. This is why paying careful attention to your GI health is SO vitally important, and a high quality probiotic is helpful beyond measure. I just can’t emphasize this enough.
The Billings “Magic Four”
In their quest for effective interventions, the Billings sought the advice of a number of healthcare providers from different backgrounds, and had a number of false starts, trying therapies that didn’t end up working. If you are interested in the specifics of those, you can read their book, but there are far too many to include here.
They eventually found the following “magic four” and credited these for advancing their recovery:
- Garlic: Garlic is a potent antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, immune system stimulant, and detoxification agent. Garlic also helps clean out the respiratory tract. The best form is raw, whole garlic, rather than a supplement derived from garlic, as it is the synergism of the whole food that makes it so clinically active. Eat the cloves whole, or run them through your juicer alongside your veggies.
- Ginger: Ginger is also an antifungal and antibacterial. It helps dislodge congestion in your respiratory tract, and is also a great digestive aid. Ginger also makes a great addition to fresh juice.
- Cayenne: Cayenne is a catalyst for the other herbs.
- Goldenseal: Goldenseal, with its active ingredient berberine, has antibacterial and immune-enhancing properties. However, it should not be used for long periods of time.
Another herb they found therapeutic is yarrow, which they used topically by infusing it into their bathwater for relief from rashes, hives, and other skin irritations.
There are undoubtedly many other helpful natural agents, and you will have to rely on the expertise of your healthcare providers to find which ones are best for you. It will require some degree of trial and error. The take-away is, there ARE options if you suspect you’ve been poisoned by mold. And as usual, the natural approaches are much safer and more effective for restoring your health than antifungal drugs, antibiotics or steroids, which are the worst options by far.
Here are a few strategies I highly recommend incorporating into your recovery plan:
- Glutathione is mentioned by Kurt and Lee Ann Billings as being helpful. Glutathione is your body’s most powerful antioxidant and has even been called the “master antioxidant” because it maximizes the activity of all the other antioxidants. The best way to increase your glutathione level is by consuming a high quality whey protein. It should be cold pressed, undenatured, derived from grass fed cows, and free of hormones, chemicals and sugar.
- Omega-3 fats are also very important, from a mixture of plant and animal sources. The best source of animal-based omega-3s comes from krill oil.
- Artichoke leaf extract: A study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry in 2004 found that extract of artichoke leaf was toxic to many types of fungi, including both molds and yeasts.
- Vitamin D: Research suggests vitamin D may prevent mold allergies, so make sure your vitamin D levels are optimal.
- Air purification: To ensure you are breathing the cleanest air possible, I recommend you avail yourself of an air purification system. Air can contain mold and mold spores, among other toxic particles. My favorite are active purification systems that utilize low levels of ozone.
- Provocation neutralization: This is a little-known treatment strategy that Dr. Doris Rapp describes as “one of the best hidden secrets.” Provocation neutralization (PN) offers allergy sufferers permanent relief with virtually no side effects, whether the allergy is to mold or something else. The success rate for this approach is about 80 to 90 percent for allergies, and you can receive the treatment at home. It is certainly worth a try if your sensitivity is related to mold.
Provocation refers to “provoking a change” and neutralization refers to “neutralizing the reaction caused by provocation.” During provocation-neutralization, a small amount of allergen is injected under your skin to produce a small bump called a “wheal” and then monitored for a reaction. If you have a positive reaction, such as fatigue or headache, or a growth in the size of the wheal, then the allergen is neutralized with diluted injections (drops that go in your mouth) of the same allergen.
If you are interested in pursuing PN, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) has a list of physicians who are trained in this technique.