From Mold Illness to Mindfully Healed, Part I: Discovery
This topic is the thread that tied the last decade of my life together. The more noise those of us affected can create, the more unwitting victims can be helped.
The increasingly common, and often hidden toxin has been underestimated for far too long. Relegated to a mere nuisance for those with overt allergies or sensitivities, mold lurking in the basement, behind wallpaper and baseboards, in AC ducts, and under carpets may be wreaking more havoc on your health than you realize. I likely spent a good portion of my childhood in and out of moldy living spaces. The house in which I grew up had a myriad of water leaks that were patched up as the years went along. I can still smell the mothballs and musty carpets of my grandparents’ home, where I spent so many afternoons during the school year. The beach house that kept us entertained in the summers during my childhood undoubtedly had mold. Even if we didn’t see it with our eyes, the odor is clearly etched in my brain.
Your brain on mold
Out of sight is clearly NOT out of mind in this case. Mold spores (both active and dead, which I’ll discuss in more detail in Part II of the series), often invisible to the naked eye, can have devastating effects on the brain.
When I found myself living in a moldy home in the midst of multiple “mystery” illnesses, I didn’t present with the classic symptoms of exposure. Watery eyes, burning in the chest, coughing, and congestion all plagued my robust husband as we uncovered one hidden mold growth patch after another. I, however, noticed the noxious air well before we popped off the baseboards… Before we removed the door frames… And months before we knocked into the walls, ultimately taking seven rooms down to the studs. Mold particles floating in the air, likely having been circulating for years after several destructive water leaks, left me feeling as though I had lost control of my mind. And I had - literally.
The literature in the U.S. is still somewhat limited, but a few important studies link the long-term effects of mold exposure to cognitive impairment. One recent study measured IQ scores of 300 six-year-olds living in moldy homes in Poland. Those who were exposed for the entire six-year period had a decline of 10 points, and those whose exposure lasted for three years showed a decrease of about 5 points . Loss of intelligence at any age is concerning, but to experience cognitive decline in the first years of life certainly leads one to wonder about the role of environmental determinants such as mold on the developing brain.
A large-scale study was performed in 8 European cities to investigate the relationship between dampness and mold in the home and depression. Results of survey data found a significant correlation between the two. Specifically, in surveying close to 6,000 subjects, researchers found that people living in visibly moldy households had a 34-40% higher likelihood of depression than residents in mold-free dwellings .
Dr. Mary Ackerman, one of a handful of “Shoemaker Protocol” certified physicians in the U.S., has been working with mold illness, aka CIRS, patients for many years. A psychiatrist by training, she found that an unusually high number of her patients with depression (which also included anxiety, fatigue, and muscle pain) were coming to her with mold illness diagnoses as well. As she read more about this condition, she discovered that neuroinflammation was at the heart of the mold or “biotoxin” illness that was plaguing so many of her patients. This link between mold and inflammation also has roots in multiple autoimmune conditions, Lyme’s disease, and a wide array of infections. I will explore CIRS, or Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome, in more detail in Part II of this series.
A nasty concoction of biotoxins
Back up three years to when symptoms of “mystery” illnesses started to interfere with my life, and there was a solid period of exposure to new construction off-gassing as well as a full summer of controlled burns that polluted our neighborhood air daily. Add to this the physical stress of two pregnancies, a lifetime of eating the Standard American Diet, regular breathing of harsh household cleaners, and decades of slathering my face and body in chemically-laden beauty products, and it’s no wonder my body was telling me something was wrong. Top it all off with strong perfectionist tendencies that would manifest in Martha Stewart-esque performances and a very self-driven entrepreneurial career, and it was only a matter of time before my body would scream out “enough already!” And THAT it did.
First signs of trouble
In 2012, I found myself thoroughly depleted - unable to pull myself out of bed for more than a few hours each day, much less take care of my family or continue my career.
As the diagnoses came rolling in over the next few years - CFS, fibromyalgia, Hashimoto’s, Lyme, EBV, leaky gut, candida, and MTHFR mutations, to name a few, it was the environmental sensitivities that became my superpower and my kryptonite.
Environmental sensitivities became my superpower and my kryptonite.
New doesn't necessarily mean safer when it comes to purchasing a home. We lived in two brand new houses before our most recent move, and I knew I was sensitive to the off-gassing of many of the chemicals found in construction materials. My increasing sensitivities to chemicals is the reason why we sought out a "used" home this time around. In spite of our best efforts, however, we didn’t pick up on the hidden mold before moving into our home several years ago. A few weeks into living there I began to sense the mustiness. My son presented with those common overt symptoms - itchy eyes, congestion, coughing - and I soon found myself even more exhausted than my recent “usual.” The best way I know to describe it was mud-in-my-vein fatigue, mixed with vertigo-ish brain fog, and doused with intense anxiety. Overwhelming bouts of anger would explode out of nowhere.
As was discovered in the study looking at six-year olds in Poland , I was truly losing my mind!
A growing epidemic
“One third to one half of all structures have damp conditions that may encourage development of pollutants such as molds and bacteria.” - United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) . Problem is unless you suffer from an acute allergy you likely have no clue. My symptoms are not unique. Scared and confused victims of this insidious biotoxin illness are suffering needlessly all over this country. As much as 28% of the population is genetically more susceptible to the effects of environmental biotoxins. I may live in humid Florida where upwards of 90% of homes have some degree of mold, but even the driest states like Arizona, Colorado, and California are not immune.
In Part II of this series, I discuss various mold testing and remediation options and dive into the details of a CIRS diagnosis.
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 Jedrychowski W, Maugeri U, Perera F, Stigter L, Jankowski J, Butscher M, Mroz E, Flak E, Skarupa A, Sowa A. (Jul 8, 2011). Cognitive Function of 6-Year Old Children Exposed to Mold-Contaminated Homes in Early Postnatal Period. Prospective birth cohort study in Poland. Physiol Behav. 2011 Oct 24;104(5):989-95. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2011.06.019.
 Shenassa, E. D., Daskalakis, C., Liebhaber, A., Braubach, M., & Brown, M. (2007). Dampness and Mold in the Home and Depression: An Examination of Mold-Related Illness and Perceived Control of One’s Home as Possible Depression Pathways. American Journal of Public Health, 97(10), 1893–1899. http://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2006.093773