Mold Matters: Understanding, Preventing, and Improving Mold-Related Health Issues

by | Feb 29, 2024 | Blog, General Wellness, Integrative Medicine

Whether you are a homeowner or renting, mold may be hiding in your home. Even if mold is not hiding in your home, chances are you’ve been exposed to mold at one point in your life at your house, at work, schools, from food, from plants, or other places.

Chronic mold exposure can lead to chronic inflammation, chronic symptoms, and chronic health issues. It can also worsen existing chronic conditions, making recovery more difficult. Yet, mold is still not taken seriously enough, and underlying mold issues are often not addressed.

In this article, I want to dive into the world of mold. You will learn about the problem with mold, mold-related symptoms, and mold illness. I will discuss how mold may play a role in mast cell activation syndrome, autoimmunity, Lyme disease, and other health conditions. Finally, I will offer some recommendations for mold-related health issues.

What Is Mold?

Our planet has over 5 million species of fungi, including mold, yeast, and mushrooms (1). Mold is a type of fungi that particularly loves warm, moist, and damp environments but can adjust to a variety of conditions. It can hide in your home, in your bathroom, kitchen, behind wallpapers, under carpeting, or underneath old paint. It may also grow on plants, soil, or food, depending on the species. 

Mold releases something called mycotoxins. Note the toxin part in mycotoxin. This is not good news for your body. Mycotoxins can impact your immune system, cause chronic inflammation, lead to allergies, and result in chronic symptoms and health issues. The mold spores can trigger classic allergy symptoms, such as runny nose, sinus congestion, itchy eyes or cough. Unfortunately, mold spores can spread far and wide and travel easily through your air. You might be dealing with small mold growth in your bathroom today, but it may lead to major issues all over your house quickly, causing chronic health problems, including respiratory symptoms, lung issues, gastrointestinal distress, skin problems, cognitive symptoms, nervous system problems, and so on.  These are issues related to the combination of SPORE effects and MYCOTOXIN effects, as outlined further below.

Where Mold Hides

So, where does mold hide? In short, anywhere and everywhere. You have to be vigilant of mold issues and aware of potential mold-related health issues.

Mold may hide in your home anywhere that’s warm, damp, or moist, and areas of water damage, leaks, and moisture. Mold may be found (2):

  • In your bathroom, including the bathtub, sink, tiles, toilet, and shower curtains
  • Under rugs or carpeting
  • Under your cushions or mattress
  • Behind old wallpaper, old paint, or drywall
  • In your kitchen, including the sink, tiles, walls, behind the stove, behind the dishwasher, the fridge, and window sills
  • Areas with leaks, water damage, flooding, or other moisture issues, including pipes, windows, and the roof
  • In indoor plants, especially in the soil
  • In air conditioning and heating vents
  • Your laundry room
  • In your attic, basement, garage, or tool shed
  • Clothing, especially in damp closets and humid rooms

You may also find mold in food. Some foods are naturally moldy, such as brie cheese or camembert. They are edible that way, though in some people may cause sensitivities or health issues. However, other foods develop mold because they are old, not packaged well, or contaminated. Contamination can occur in food storage facilities, before purchased at the grocery market or arriving in your kitchen. In some cases, mold on food is obvious. It looks blue, gray, or brown. In other cases, you may not know there is a mold issue with your food (3). 

It’s important that if a food is moldy, you dispose of the entire food or box (e.g., the whole loaf of bread, the entire box of granola, the whole fruit) instead of just removing the visibly moldy section. Mold mycotoxins are invisible and accumulate fast. Your food is likely completely affected. To avoid moldy food, also look at the expiration date and examine your food before eating.

Foods and food ingredients that are at high risk of mold growth and mold contamination may include:

  • Rye
  • Wheat
  • Cereals
  • Corn
  • Tree nuts
  • Ground nuts 
  • Bread and other baked foods
  • Pizza dough and other bready dough
  • Dates, figs, and dried fruits
  • Coffee beans and cacao beans
  • Milk and milk products such as cheese
  • Apple juice
  • Processed and smoked meat
  • Condiments
  • Processed foods in general

How Mold Affects Your Body

Mold mycotoxins can disrupt your health in a variety of ways, including:

  • Increasing your inflammatory markers (5).
  • Disrupting your gut microbiome and causing gastrointestinal symptoms (6).
  • Lowering neurological and cognitive functions, such as memory, reaction time, and grip strength (7).
  • Disrupting your immune system, energy production, hormonal health, and nervous system (8).
  • Compromising your lung health (9).
  • Increasing mast cell activation and histamine intolerance (10). 
  • Increasing chronic inflammation (11).
  • Compromising your immune system (12).

What Is Mold Illness?

Mold illness or mold-related illness is a chronic health issue due to exposure to mold spores or mold mycotoxins. It is not the same as mold allergies. Mold spores, when inhaled, can cause allergies characterized by respiratory symptoms similar to seasonal allergies. Mold illness, however, is characterized by a chronic inflammatory response to mold and a variety of related chronic symptoms. 

The topic of long-term mold-related health issues and mold illness, yet, it is still controversial in the medical community. (13). However, various research studies and my personal experience treating patients suggest that mold-related illness is very much a real and serious issue.

Symptoms of Mold Illness

Mold-related illnesses look different from person to person. Some may only experience mild symptoms, for others, it is more severe or even disabling. If you have a compromised immune system, lung issues, or allergies, your symptoms may increase your risk of severe symptoms (14).

 Symptoms of mold-related illness may include:

  • Respiratory symptoms, such as sneezing, stuffy nose, congestion, wheezing, and asthma attacks (15, 16)
  • Neurological symptoms, such as poor memory, brain fog, poor concentration, dizziness, imbalances, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues (17, 18, 19)
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as gas, bloating, abdominal cramps, nausea, and diarrhea (20, 21)
  • Musculoskeletal symptoms, such as muscle aches and joint pain (22)
  • Immunological symptoms, such as hypersensitivity to certain foods, molds, or chemicals, and allergic reactions (23)
  • Cardiovascular symptoms, such as bruising, hemoptysis, and petechiae (24)
  • Other symptoms, such as fatigue, sleep problems, headaches, migraines, and skin issues (25, 26, 27)

Beyond Mold Illness: Mold and Other Health Issues

Mold doesn’t only increase your risk of mold allergies and mold-related illness but also a list of other chronic health issues. Mold-related symptoms often co-occur with other chronic health issues. Sometimes, mold is among the main or first triggers of the health issue. In other cases, mold is not the cause, however, it can make your symptoms more severe and recovery more difficult. Chronic health issues may also make you more sensitive to mold mycotoxins, leading to further symptoms. It can be a vicious cycle.

We commonly see mold issues in mast cell activation syndrome, autoimmune conditions, and Lyme disease. Let’s discuss the potential link.

Mold & MCAS

Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) is characterized by overactive mast cells, resulting in widespread symptoms, including fatigue, migraines, headaches, hives, eczema, digestive issues, bladder problems, and nervous system issues (28). Mast activation has many triggers. Mold mycotoxins are only one of them.

When your body encounters mold mycotoxins, your mast cells will release histamine and other inflammatory mediators to deal with potential harm. This may lead to temporary symptoms, such as respiratory or skin issues. If it’s a one-time event, this shouldn’t be an issue.

However, if you are exposed to mold mycotoxins every day, your immune system’s alarm system will turn on and stay on 24/7. This ongoing alertness can lead to an ongoing immune response, ongoing mast cell activation, the overproduction of mast cell mediators, ongoing inflammation, and chronic symptoms (29). 

According to a 2018 article published in The Journal of Regulators and Homeostatic Agents, mold exposure may result in a mast cell-cytokine response, causing brain fog, fatigue, headaches, respiratory issues, asthma, nausea, and other symptoms.

(30). Ongoing exposure can lead to ongoing mast cell-cytokine response and the same symptoms on a chronic level. 

Thus, chronic mold exposure may increase the risk of MCAS and related symptoms. However, if you already had MCAS before being exposed to mold, chronic or severe mold exposure is also not good news. It may lead to more severe symptoms of MCAS and hinder treatment.

Mold and Autoimmunity

Having an autoimmune condition means that your immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells, confusing them with pathogens. This can lead to chronic symptoms. There are over 80 known different kinds of autoimmune conditions, and probably more we haven’t identified yet. Some affect only a certain area of your body, others lead to widespread symptoms. Some of the most common autoimmune conditions include Celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves’ disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis.

Experiencing chronic mold exposure can lead to inflammatory reactivity, chronic inflammation, immune dysregulation, and autoimmunity. According to a 2018 paper published in The Journal of Regulators and Homeostatic Agents, mold exposure may cause a mast cell-cytokine response (30). When it’s ongoing, this constant immune reaction and inflammatory response can drive your immune system into overdrive. This can result in dysregulation and autoimmunity (31). Thus, it seems that chronic mold exposure may increase your risk of developing an autoimmune disorder.

If you do have an autoimmune condition, it may make you more vulnerable to mold. If you are taking an immune-suppressing medication, it may also make your body more vulnerable to mold. Your suppressed immune system won’t be able to respond to mold effectively, and you may develop mold-related health issues, including mold-related illness, more easily. Having an autoimmune disease may also make your recovery from mold-related illness more tricky or slower, as you and your doctor will have to address multiple players behind your symptoms.

Mold and Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi predominately, as well as some other species, which are transmitted by infected black-legged ticks. Lyme disease is a serious issue and is the most common vector-borne disease in the US and Canada. 

Symptoms of acute Lyme disease may include a bull’s eye rash, headaches, fatigue, and fever, but in some cases no symptoms at all. Untreated or improperly treated acute Lyme disease may turn into chronic Lyme disease, which is an increasingly common chronic health condition characterized by fatigue, joint and muscle pain, headache, respiratory issues, shortness of breath, dizziness, and other chronic symptoms (32, 33). You may also experience Lyme co-infections, including bartonellosis, anaplasmosis, and babesiosis, which are often responsible for several of the symptoms and complications (34).

Lyme disease obviously doesn’t develop from mold. However, mold-related illness and Lyme disease can commonly co-occur. Lyme disease is characterized by a dysregulated immune system, an overproduction of pro-inflammatory cytokines, chronic inflammation, and a generally weaker body. This can make it harder for your system to fight and take care of mold and other toxins or pathogens. It may make you more sensitive to mold and increase the risk of mold-related illness or other chronic health issues. 

If you already had mold-related health issues before developing Lyme disease, it may worsen your Lyme-related symptoms. Since symptoms can overlap and the two issues can co-occur, diagnosis and treatment can be tricky. Checking for mold-related illness, Lyme disease, and co-infections may be critical, especially if the patient is not responding to exclusively mold-related or exclusively Lyme-related treatment (35).

Mold and Other Health Issues

Mold illness may co-occur with many other chronic health issues. In some cases, mold is one of the original triggers. In other cases, mold-related health issues occur later, worsening the other condition and hindering recovery. In other cases, mold-related illness makes patients more vulnerable to other issues, eventually resulting in other chronic conditions. It is critical to check for underlying or co-occurring mold issues in the case of many chronic conditions. Chronic health conditions that may co-occur with mold illness may include chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, brain and neurological issues, headaches, migraine, allergies, food sensitivities, and mental health issues (35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40). 

Recommendations for Mold-Related Illness

If you have been exposed to mold or are experiencing mold-related symptoms or illness, there are some crucial steps you can take to improve your health. Here is what I recommend:

Reduce Your Mold Exposure

Check your home for mold. If there is mold in your home, you can work on other strategies daily, but your symptoms will likely persist. If there is mold in your home, call a mold remediation specialist to remove it professionally and get professional recommendations for solutions. Check for and address any underlying issues behind mold growth, including moisture leaks, old carpeting, old wallpaper, high humidity, or poor ventilation. Invest in a high-quality air filtration system to remove mold spores from your indoor air. If you have a concern regarding mold at your job, talk to HR about professional mold remediation and investing in an air filtration system. In the meantime, you may also use a small air filtration device to improve your office space.

Detoxify Your Body from Mold

If you are experiencing symptoms of mold-related illness or have been chronically exposed to mold, I recommend getting assessed for mold-related illness. If you have symptoms of or have been diagnosed with mold-related illness, support your body in detoxifying. Drink lots of purified water to support detoxification and hydration. Improve detoxification through sweat by exercising and using an infrared sauna. You may try activated charcoal, which can help to absorb and eliminate toxins (41). Try glutathione to support mitochondrial health and recovery from mold toxicity (42). Take a daily high-quality probiotic supplement to improve your microbiome after mold exposure. The more sophisticated strategies require guidance from a qualified health professional well-versed in mold-related illness. 

Follow an Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Lifestyle

Improve your diet and focus on an anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense whole foods nutrition plan with plenty of greens, vegetables, sprouts, herbs, spices, fruits, fermented food, non-moldy nuts and seeds, pseudograins, grass-fed beef,  pasture-raised poultry and eggs, and wild-caught fish. Since mold exposure may lead to histamine intolerance, you may benefit from following a low-histamine diet for 3 to 4 weeks. Keep your inflammation levels low by getting enough restorative sleep, reducing stress, moving your body regularly, and reducing environmental toxin exposure.

Next Steps

Working with a healthcare practitioner knowledgeable in mold-related illness is the best way to get to the root cause of your symptoms and to create an individualized treatment plan. If you are dealing with any chronic health issues and need advice on how to improve your nutrition and health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance. You may book your consultation here

Check out my Histamine Intolerance Course here. Learn on your own time, from anywhere. Get an inside look at the most helpful functional medicine tests for pinpointing imbalances, ways to identify and manage the most common (and sometimes surprising) mast cell triggers, and learn what to eat, what to avoid, and why.


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