If hearing the words “mold toxicity” immediately sends shivers down your spine, you’re not alone. Getting sick from mold exposure is something we might find interesting on our favorite medical show—but it’s not something any of us want to experience firsthand. The good news? Symptoms of mold and toxic mold exposure can be combated if you know what to look for.
Mold-related health problems are very real and affect many people every single year. To make matters more complicated, mold issues are often misdiagnosed, undiagnosed, or left untreated in conventional medicine. So, let’s break down mold toxicity, what that really means, and how Parsley Health takes a holistic and science-based approach to treating mold toxicity symptoms.
Mold is a common fungus that grows in places with a lot of moisture, such as roofs, pipes, and under wood and tile floors and ceilings. Different types of mold are around us all the time, but some are more dangerous than others and certain people are allergic to mold or sensitive to the naturally occurring toxins, called mycotoxins, that mold can emit. When you’re exposed to too much mold, mold that you’re sensitive to, or certain types of mold known to cause health issues, it can lead to a condition called mold toxicity.
According to Megan McElroy, PA-C , a physician assistant at Parsley Health in New York City: “Mold toxicity issues are commonly overlooked in conventional medicine.” Why? Because mold toxicity can cause a wide range of symptoms that can be hard to describe if you have them and hard to piece together for your doctor, especially if they don’t have experience and training in mold issues.
The symptoms of mold issues can be divided into two main categories. According to McElroy, the first is an immune reaction to mold, which typically involves allergy-like symptoms such as sinus issues, runny nose, itchy skin and eyes, asthma, shortness of breath, and more. The second type of mold issue is a chemical and inflammatory reaction to mold. As McElroy explains, this is driven by mycotoxins, which can initiate an inflammatory cytokine-driven response in the body. And as you might already know about chronic inflammation , this can create symptoms that are vague, broad, and very hard to pin down such as:
As McElroy explains it, “the symptoms of mycotoxin-induced illness vary and have no pattern, and they are not unique to this illness,” which means they can easily be mistaken for something else.
“Conventional medicine recognizes that mold can cause allergies but does not recognize that mycotoxins emitted by some species of indoor mold can cause a problem,” says McElroy. This means that doctors unfamiliar with mold and mold treatment may miss one of the main types of mold reactions—the chemical and inflammatory reaction. This is for a few reasons:
It’s no wonder mold illness can be hard to diagnose. Fortunately, holistic medicine providers consider environmental factors that affect health when evaluating patients and may have additional advanced training in treating mold toxicity.
According to McElroy, one of the biggest challenges with mold is that mycotoxins can cause only some people to launch an inflammatory response. “This unpredictable response can go on for years after a long-term exposure in a susceptible individual,” she explains.
“All in all, there is no simple way to diagnose mycotoxin illness,” says McElroy. But testing is typically the first step. She prefers to start patients with at-home tests and also recommends a home inspection by a certified mold inspector. “[At-home tests] should only be ordered, in my opinion, once the environment is evaluated for the source of mold,” explains McElroy. The most direct way to test for mold toxicity is a urine test that measures for metabolites of mold and mycotoxins as well as glutathione levels (which can be depleted when you’re exposed to mold). That said, as McElroy explains,” I never place the entire diagnosis of mycotoxin illness on tests alone.” Why? Because mold tests have some major drawbacks, including:
These tests clearly aren’t perfect. In fact, McElroy says she has seen patients who were really sick have almost nothing show up on the test while the healthy spouses of those same patients register values off the charts, so having a clinician that’s willing and able to do some extra investigation into symptoms of mold and toxic mold exposure is key.
“Right now, you’ll see a lot of experts recommending handfuls of supplements and strict diets but the reality is, we just don’t know for sure if these are the right treatment approach,” says McElroy. Instead, she recommends the steps below. You might be surprised to see that “killing the mold” is only one out of five. That’s no coincidence! As McElroy explains, “I often don’t focus on ‘killing’ mold since most symptoms are due to the immune response, not the mold itself.” Instead, she starts with simple lifestyle steps and utilizes non-pill practices to achieve a state of better immune health , including:
Eliminate the sources of the mold from the environment but also eliminate common dietary sources of mold, including grains, coffee , and peanut butter. This will help reduce the overall mold burden on the body.
“Since molds can colonize the sinuses, I like to collaborate with ear-nose-throat doctors on this,” says McElroy. That said, you can also take steps to improve sinus health at home, including healing the gut since 70 to 80 percent of our immune system is located there. (Here’s how to achieve better gut health .)
Certain areas of the body are more vulnerable to mycotoxins, and the brain is one of them. Certain areas of the brain can end up in a chronic fight or flight response and according to McElroy, “No pill can fully stop this response, so we have to ‘retrain’ certain neural pathways to put the response into a ‘heal and rest’ state.” She often recommends Annie Hopper’s Dynamic Neural Retraining System . “This is essential for full recovery,” says McElroy.
Taking steps to lower inflammation can help bring balance back to an overactive immune response. This means following an anti-inflammatory diet and committing to daily stress management habits. Parsley’s health coaches often work with members to develop personalized strategies to reduce inflammation , based on their current lifestyle.
Supporting the body’s ability to bind to and eliminate toxins is a key part of healing from mycotoxin exposure. And according to McElroy, this is where supplements can be helpful. Some of her go-to’s include antioxidants like glutathione and N-acetylcysteine (NAC), charcoal, and bitter greens, which all support the liver . It’s important to work with a practitioner experienced in mold illness, like those at Parsley Health , who can recommend the right supplements and doses of each.
As McElroy explains, “Mold toxicity is difficult to diagnose, as many patients are pushed aside by practitioners and loved ones, and it involves more than pills for treatment.” Toxic mold exposure can be a financially, emotionally, and physically stressful experience and there is no cut and dried diagnosis and treatment. “It takes patience, persistence, and recognition that more treatments are not usually the answer,” she continues.
The reality is that we are still in the infancy stage of knowing about toxic mold exposure and mold toxicity symptoms, and we need more research done on this to truly get a better picture of how to address symptoms of mold. The good news is that there are knowledgeable doctors within reach who are ready with a science-backed action plan to get you back to feeling your best .
Gretchen Lidicker is a writer, researcher, and author of the book CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide To Hemp-Derived Health & Wellness. She has a masters degree in physiology and complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University and is the former health editor at mindbodygreen. She's been featured in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Forbes, SELF, The Times, Huffington Post, and Travel + Leisure.