One of the things that helps many mold patients during their recovery is connecting with and working with a naturopathic doctor. Luckily for my family, Dr. Dennis pulled us through, helping to identify the mold piece of the puzzle in our home and in our bodies. He also introduced us to protocols that ignited our healing and still continue to help us recover. Dr. Dennis guided phases of my detox, and the dietary- and nutritional supplement-side of things as well. We were very fortunate. But, for many other mold patients, medical doctors fail to see the environmental issues, and only treat immediate symptoms, leaving them still sick and increasingly frustrated. It is not until they try “alternative” therapies and visit naturopathic doctors and/or medical doctors who take an integrative approach to treatment that they finally are able to identify the cause of their illnesses.
In this way, naturopathic doctors are playing an integral part in how environmental illness is treated. They are on the front lines, tirelessly looking at the person, not just the symptom, to see what is happening in a patient’s diet, home, work and personal life to cause whatever illness is going on in the body. Naturopathic doctors help our understanding of how best to fine tune and prime our bodies to withstand environmental toxins. It is the naturopathic doctor’s unique knowledge of the body as a smart and complex system and view of a whole-body approach to healing that I want to shift my focus to today.
More specifically, I want to get a naturopathic doctor’s view of when something like mold becomes the tipping point, driving a major immune reaction, inflammation and illness. When our bodies scream at us that something is wrong, what should we do? What is the “whole body approach” to treating and healing from a mold exposure or mold-instigated illness?
To help answer this question, I was fortunate to be able to speak with Kimberly Williford, MS,RD/LD,NMD, a Board-Certified, licensed Naturopathic Doctor and Registered Dietitian and one of the founding partners of Southern Integrative and Environmental Medical (SIEM) located in Atlanta, GA. Dr. Williford treats environmental toxicity, metabolic dysfunction, hormonal imbalance, and chronic disease, with a focus on longevity and anti-aging. The practice offers comprehensive, individualized and integrative support for its patients.
Just a brief synopsis of Dr. Williford’s medical background:
She earned her undergraduate degree from The University of Texas at Austin and her Master’s degree in Nutritional Science, Magna Cum Laude, from Texas Tech University. After graduate school, she focused her efforts on children born with metabolic disorders, leading her to a career as an intensive care dietitian. In this capacity, she acquired extensive exposure to the unique nutritional needs of the geriatric population while working with them in both the hospital and in extended care facilities.
Dr. Williford went on to attend medical school and earn her Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine degree at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, one of only four accredited, four-year naturopathic medical schools in the United States. She is currently completing Board Certification in anti-aging and restorative medicine with the American Academy of Anti–Aging and Rejuvenation Medicine.
In addition, and of particular interest to me, Dr. Williford studied environmental medicine with Dr. Bill Rea, director of the Environmental Health Center – Dallas, and Dr. Walter Crinnion, a more than 30-year veteran and expert in environmental medicine. She is a member of 9 medical associations and colleges and maintains well over 30 hours of continuing education annually in integrative medicine.
Dr. Williford’s whole body approach to health requires nutritional, hormonal and supplement support, and informed lab testing and analysis. Her extensive background in nutrition and dietetics truly drives her treatments and overarching view that the gut is the center and purveyor of the body’s immunity. Without a healthy gut, the body cannot function properly, optimally or heal. For Dr. Williford, the goal for her patients isn’t just to get them well, but to eventually improve their overall health, so that they can be better equipped to handle environmental toxicity and stress in the future. The overall goal is for patients to thrive from a full-body health perspective, so that they can live their best lives.
What follows is my interview with Dr. Williford. I hope that some of my questions are also some of yours, and that this interview helps illuminate a naturopathic doctor’s approach to healing from mold.
Me: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me today to share your knowledge and to answer some of my mold-specific questions about your approach to health and wellness. The more I learn about my own healing, the more I realize the importance of an integrative approach to medicine—everything about the body is so connected. For example, our mold exposure created gut issues for me and symptoms of adrenal fatigue that really confused me, since I had always been told that mold reactions tend to be in the sinus or present like asthma. That leads me to my first question: With so many different variations of reactions and symptoms, how do you diagnose mold reactions or illness in your patients? What do you look for?
Dr. Williford: We do mold test our patients at SIEM, especially if people coming in know that they have been exposed. Usually mold is the tipping point, though. It doesn’t necessarily cause all of the health problems by itself. Our bodies are kind of like “buckets.” As you progress through life, you are constantly adding to that bucket. If you were a C-section delivery, that has influence on your immune system. If you were sick a lot as a child, that takes us down a different path too and adds to your bucket. Along the way, when you get exposed to things, viruses, stress, toxins, etc., those things get added to your bucket. So, if you have a mold exposure, that may the something that is the tipping to point to symptoms or illness that seems to happen overnight. So, when a patient comes in, we start with taking an in-depth history and doing different types of testing. One thing we always start treating right away, though, is the gut. The gut is where 85% of immune system is made. If you have something as simple as yeast in the gut, you often have symptoms in your sinus as well. So we treat the whole person. Without a synergy of treatment, and treating multiple things at once, it is hard resolve the problem.
Me: What kinds of symptoms do you most commonly see when someone comes to see you for mold-related illness?
Dr. Williford: It is across the board. People don’t have to have sinus issues, but more immune and nerve issues. Chronic fatigue, headaches, decreased ability to think, memory loss, weakness, heart palpitations, to name a few. Some people have lost tolerance and become sensitive to chemicals and medications that they haven’t been in the past, or they have seasonal allergies when those things used to never bother them. Often, an environmental cause is not what people think of first. If you don’t go to your doctor reporting a known exposure to mold, and sometimes even if you do, people are not evaluated for mold. Our first appointment with all new patients is an hour and a half to go extensively through the history, from birth and childhood to the present, because you can tell a lot about what is going on, and where you are headed, from that information.
Me: So, let’s assume you’ve identified that there has been a mold exposure, and you are at the point in treatment when you are beginning a patient on a detoxification protocol. How do you begin? What does that look like?
Dr. Williford: We always start with the gut, which is key to restoration of health. The way we go about it varies and is individualized. It is based upon the constitution of the person, which is something that you get from that first intake. You have to start supporting the system metabolically before you start to mobilize a lot of toxins that are stored in the body. We don’t do an aggressive “detox” out of the gate. And, really, I don’t like to use the term detox, because people think, “for this time I’ll do this” and then get back to regularly scheduled life, but it is really a paradigm shift in thinking. You always have to reduce toxic burden, because our environment is very toxic, you have exposures daily. It is a daily process and a lifelong shift you are making, rather than a 4 or 6 week period.
(As your body stabilizes and things get better, your hormone receptors function better. Mold has an impact on hormone function. Yeast and mold like to “block up”receptors, and you can get a host of hormone issues.) Often, when people come in for mold, they have other things going on and their body just couldn’t deal with anything additional. Had it been 10 or 20 years earlier, and they had a mold exposure, it might not have even impacted them. Now, with a full “bucket” it is a bigger impact and can make them very sick.
Me: Let’s focus on what you said about hormones. I never really considered how much the mold was affecting my hormone function until I lost my period and couldn’t sleep anymore. It was like I was completely exhausted, but still couldn’t stay asleep for more than a few hours at a time. So, everything you are saying makes so much sense to me.
Dr. Williford: Yes. Adrenal, thyroid, and sex hormones are often impacted, partially because of pituitary impact from toxic exposures. This can result in many problems with sleep and menstrual issues being just a couple. Your sleep rhythm and pattern is an important piece of information in how your body is functioning. It can have a body-wide effect, and can influence each system. That is why we do a variety of testing, but different people also have different genes. You can do genetic sensitivity testing for mold, but just because you have the genes for something doesn’t mean you have the expression. It is the environment around those genes that “pulls the trigger.” If you have a family, and all have the gene for something, you will still have to look at how oxidized and damaged their systems are to determine who is going to be most affected. We will do genetic testing for mold sensitivity on a case by case basis. We do enough testing and information gathering to get someone well, but you have to think about if it is going to change what you are going to do to help that person. Genetic testing is helpful for some people to be on board with following a treatment or a plan. What each person needs, is what I want to give them to be successful.
Me: At a certain point, though, like in our home, everyone was going to get sick, especially if what they are being exposed to is toxic enough. Whether you have the HLA marker on your genetic profile that makes you more susceptible to mold-related illness or not, it doesn’t mean it is a good idea to live in a moldy environment. That is what I try to impart to people anyway.
Dr. Williford: Well, yes. Genetic testing is helpful when you know that you could potentially have a greater opportunity to be made sick by mold. You may do more to take care of your environment and yourself. We do genetic testing for myriad things, such as testing for a gene that shows a greater risk for developing celiac disease. Given enough time, in the right environment, that person will develop celiac if they keep eating wheat. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they already have it. Women are more susceptible than men with the mold, so many times, the men in the home, aren’t even sick. It is harder for them to understand, because they don’t feel bad. So, when you have the genetic testing to back it up, it helps them to understand that there is a reason why their spouse is sick. The mold then becomes a valid argument. It can be very helpful in that sense.
Me: I have seen that a lot too. Mold can cause lots of discord when only one person is sick. Now, I am going to switch the subject to supplements. Have you seen any supplements be more effective for mold patients or supplements that are more effective for people dealing with toxic burden?
Dr. Williford: We use physician-line products in our practice, so that you know they are tested both pre and post production, and you know what is in them, the amount that is them and can trust that you are getting what you need from them. There are several different supplements, based, one on that person’s constitution, and, two, on what their lab results look like. That helps dictate what would be best for them. Different patients have different sensitivities as well. There are varying options within each type of product. We have things that are helpful if someone is prone to a Herxheimer-type (die-off) reaction, to help lessen it for them. We do a variety of nutrient IV therapies as well, individualized for our patients. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is also helpful for mold patients. It can be helpful for many of our patients. There is an oxygen piece to recovery, oxygen is used for cell metabolism and energy production. Without energy and oxygen, cells don’t work.
Me: Why is that? Why is the hyperbaric oxygen therapy so useful specifically for mold patients?
Dr. Williford: It increases oxygenation to the whole body. Oxygen is very healing, often HBOT and home oxygen are utilized. It helps with the fuzzy brain that you can get and spasm of microscopic capillary beds in the tissues of the body. It supersaturates the tissues and drops lactic acid levels. That is part of the impact with increasing oxygen. We also look at different types of cleansing methods, whether that’s dry brushing or an infrared sauna. It just depends on the constitution of the person. There are lots of different options, which is helpful as really no one has the same experience with environmental illness. That is also why care has to be very individualized.
Me: How often do you want people to do the oxygen, if they are on that regimen?
Dr. Williford: There is no true protocol, everyone is different, but at least one month. Everyone’s metabolic system is unique with different levels of toxicity. No one is on the exact same regimen.
Me: With all of your background in nutrition, where do you start with getting patients on a good nutrition plan to help them heal from mold? At what point do you address diet? I know that you can’t truly heal, if your body is operating at a nutritional deficit.
Dr. Williford: We start from the beginning with addressing diet. You have to take the burden off of the body. Start putting nutrient dense things into the system to start repairs. We start with a low allergy, low inflammation diet. Even then, fine tune that, even on that first visit. Then, when we get labs back, we can follow up in about 4 weeks. It takes about 21-28 days to start to see a shift in the gut lining piece. You can start to see shifting there, which is why we go through some of the same questions in those follow-up visits that we go through every time. We start to fine tune treatment. When we get stool and food sensitivity testing back, we can further fine tune. You won’t get well if you continue putting junk into a system. And things that you have sensitivities to, it will keep everything inflamed. And if you have a very leaky/hyerpermeable gut, you have an inflamed leaky brain too. You have to start the shift somewhere.
Me: One approach for diet doesn’t seem to work for everyone in my experience. Yes, there is a basic way to look at things, but I’ve found that, for example, I do better with less protein and more fats, while my husband does better with more protein. How hard is it to figure out what each person needs nutritionally to get well? Can testing tell you all of that?
Dr. Williford: People are different, yes. But, you have to look at the why. Why doesn’t that food work for that person? Is it poor absorption, food sensitivity, a mineral deficiency? Do you not utilize things well? Mineral deficiencies are very common anyway, very common in chemically sensitive and mold patients. We use the food sensitivity and the stool test. But, that is just one piece. The food sensitivity looks at a small part of it. There is a test we use often on the urine organic acids that gives lots of information on the small bowel. Then, you put that with all of the other information about the patient, and you can get a pretty good picture about what will work for them. How people are handling stress, what you are doing to detox and sweat, because that is important for the overall system. The whole person is important. The diet piece, some people are more sensitive to sulfites than others. Histamine is a hot item these days, but histamine and sulfite reactions are very similar. I never do just a plain food sensitivity test, because you could get some false negatives. If you don’t have other markers, like from a stool test, you won’t know that. It is not black and white. There are different types of food sensitivities. There are some that happen straight away and some that happen days and days later. So, there are a lot nuances to that information.
Me: Do those food sensitivity tests mean that you are sensitive to that food at this time, but maybe not forever? Could it change? Is it important to continue testing? I’ve heard both ways.
Dr. Williford: Yes. There are lots of thoughts about that. Most big proteins, like eggs, if you eat them every day, it is very common to develop sensitivity to them. What should happen with food sensitivities is that you can take certain foods out of a diet and out of the system and repair the system. And then later, you can get to a point of reintroduction. That reintroduction varies, because all of that is individualized. There are some things, though, in my opinion, which you are never going to reintroduce, like gluten for example. There is a list of things that we are never really excited about anyone going back on. It is not that everyone has a gluten problem. A lot of people have gluten or glyphosate issues, but you can later do some reintroduction. What becomes important is how that person responds on day one and day two of the reintroduction, and then over three or four days. That gives you a lot of information about that person’s system. The other thing that is very important when you have a first visit with someone is what their skin looks like, what their hair looks like, and their nails, because you get a lot of information about the inside of that system with looking at what is happening on the outside. Your skin is your biggest detox organ. So, if you have a really inflamed puffy face, you know there is a lot going on in the gut. Also, as the inside gets better, the outside will look better and better.
Me: I want to talk a little bit about the infusions that your practice offers. Why are they so effective? Is it because they don’t have to go through the gut to be used? Is the body’s ability to use the vitamins and minerals almost instant? Is there an infusion that you typically recommend for mold patients?
Dr. Williford: We do a lot of nutrient and vitamin/mineral IV’s. Those are all individualized too, even your nutrient ones. We use a lot of glutathione both by mouth and IV, because that is the main antioxidant that your body uses for detoxification. There are some people that don’t do well with glutathione first, because you have to have other nutrients to cycle it. Some people will try to do a lot by mouth or IV pushes to try to get an instant type of a fix, if you will, but if you don’t have enough nutrients on board, your body cannot complete the process of detoxification with that glutathione. So, you don’t feel very good, because you don’t have the cofactors to run the reaction. A nutrient IV is important to do ahead of that to “prime the pumps.” You can’t do everything day one. All of these things have an impact and synergy. In integrative care, everything should be designed to work together. That is a different thought than with the standard of care. You can’t just go crazy and do everything day one. It is a process and everyone is different, and you can do too much of a good thing. Hyperbaric is great, but you can overdo it as well. Just because it is natural does not mean you can’t overdo it.
Me: More isn’t always better. That is very hard for some people to understand.
Dr. Williford: Supplements are the other component that is very important. It is a big industry. Using quality things that you can count on is very important. The supplements that you buy at Walmart are not the same thing as the supplements that you buy from a physician-line company. We also do not do private label supplements, as it is important for patients to know who is making their product and can trace it back to production, if they have a question. With private label products, you never really know where your product was made or by who. That is important, because ingredients for supplements come from all over the world. Environmental medicine is an investment, for sure, but it is an investment in your health. Definitely, the goal is to get to the “root cause” and resolve that, so you can continue on and enjoy your life. Our goal is for patients to THRIVE!
Me: What are some things anyone can do that would have a positive impact on their health? They could be on a daily basis, or looking more long term.
Dr. Williford: Most people walk around dehydrated. Water is extremely important—clean water. I take a lot of supplements. I do IVs regularly. I use the sauna, and the BioMat to decrease toxic burden on the system. And, having a spiritual life, all of this works together. The whole body is connected. We exercise, whether it is in the gym, or hiking outside. We try to be very aware of not overworking and having enough “play.” We try to keep a balance on stress. Good or bad, your adrenals have to participate and respond to stress. Besides the water piece, a lot of people are magnesium deficient. Your body uses magnesium in over 500 metabolic processes. Taking care of your body is a lot if upkeep. I tell patients, it is a lot and it can be overwhelming, but it is a process. We need to be incorporating new things all of the time. Everyone is going to mess up. For example, when you have completely changed your diet to a low allergy diet, and one day, you fall off of the diet and eat pizza, which has every allergy known to man, except maybe peanuts. But, I just tell people you get back on track. No one is perfect in doing a yeast diet every day. Diet is very personal and is the one thing you have control over—what you eat. It is important to understand that there are reasons you have cravings, whether that’s your poor adrenal function, or what is living in your gut. There is a lot of who’s driving who.. Those things have more impact than we even know. People need to be gracious with themselves. If a patient is going to give up the moment they mess up, then I do things differently. I don’t want to set anyone up for failure. Everything is very individualized. If you treat what is causing and driving it, you can change the behavior. People are very smart. If you teach them why you are doing something and what the reason behind something you are doing is, they will change the behavior, because you aren’t just saying, “Here. Take this.”
Me: I completely agree. Thank you so much for ALL of this insight. I feel like I have learned so much, I need to go through it again and again to process it all. I look forward to connecting with you next time, in person, so that maybe you can lead me through some of this for my own continued healing.
For more information on Dr. Williford and to contact her practice or to schedule an appointment, visit https://www.siemedical.com/ or call 404-963-9773.