Mold in Your Environment May Be at the Root of Your Digestive Issues
My “Why Am I STILL Sick” post generated LOTS of reader questions. Each reader wanted specific answers about a particular piece of their personal illness puzzle. Unfortunately, I am not able to give individual medical advice to anyone about their symptoms or health struggles, because I am not a licensed medical doctor or health practitioner. While I do have my own experience and our success story to back what I write about and share on the blog, I am still not qualified to weigh in on the symptoms of others. What I CAN do to continue to help, though, is to dive a little deeper into some of the main categories that readers wrote to me about that seem to be hindering their treatment progress.
Since GI and digestive issues seem to be a large pain point for many mold illness sufferers, I thought I could start there. (I am definitely versed and familiar with GI symptoms as I suffered greatly with ulcerative colitis as one of my main health fallout pieces from the mold.) In order to do that, I have to address the main culprit for most digestive issues as they relate to mold and mold illness: Candida (yeast) overgrowth.
Let me start by saying that I know that fungus in the gut is different from fungus in the air and on your things. I also know that you do not necessarily get Candida overgrowth by living in a moldy home. In other words, by inhaling mold spores, you do not acquire Candida overgrowth, leaky gut, etc. But, the two are DEFINITELY linked (the Mold/Candida connection) and related. Here is why:
First, we ALL have Candida living in our bodies to some degree. It is confined to our mouths and digestive systems to help break down food and aid in digestion. Usually, the “good” bacteria also living in our gut keep Candida levels in check, maintaining a balanced, diverse, and healthy microbiome. But, when our immune systems become compromised, like when we are exposed to mold in our indoor environments, or have had chronic infections and have been taking too many courses of antibiotics that kill off all of the good bacteria, or when we drink too much alcohol or eat the typical Western diet, high in sugars and carbohydrates that feed the sugar-loving Candida, or when we drink chlorinated water than kills the good bacteria, but not the yeast, the level of Candida gets higher and higher until it takes over and migrates beyond our digestive systems.
The way that mold exposure works to allow the Candida to grow out of control is a little more complicated, and serious, though, because it involves the entire immune system being compromised. You see, air fungi (or the molds that commonly make people sick in indoor environments) act as SUPERANTIGENS to 16-20% of the population. In short, this means that one fungal spore from the air will cause the immune system of someone in the susceptible population to deploy more than 3,000 immune T-cells (white blood cells) to respond to that fungus. (The normal response is .01% of that.) Then, when immune T-cells attach to the fungus to destroy it, three inflammatory substances (IL5, IL13, INFγ) are excreted. This causes 9,000 times more inflammation than the normal systemic inflammation to an antigen. It also causes production of 9,000 times the normal IgG anti-fungal antibodies to form to counter the air borne fungi.
If someone’s body is overproducing fungal antibodies at an extreme and chronic level, especially if they are living in a moldy environment, normal antibody production is impacted and decreased. This, of course, can lead to immune suppression for everything else and is precisely why people living in moldy homes or working in moldy buildings experience multi-system symptoms, illnesses, chronic infections, and viruses. Their immune systems are totally cashed out fighting the mold antigens and have nothing left to sustain strong, general immunity and wellness. Most doctors suspect that this overall immune suppression caused by the inflammatory response to environmental mold is also what commonly causes Candida overgrowth in the digestive systems of mold patients. One is a precursor to the other. With the immune system suppressed, Candida can leave the confines of the digestive system to flourish and to create symptoms of its own.
An additional factor that contributes to the invasive nature of Candida is the fact that the cell walls of Candida are composed of glucan. Glucan acts as a sugar receptor, so that when Candida encounters sugar, it has the unique ability to change into its hyphal form. This allows the Candida to bore through tissue, causing inflammation and swelling in the gut and digestive tract, making larger spaces between cells. This may be a picture you don’t want to think about, but picture the hyphae like the roots of a highly resilient and invasive weed. These “roots” can grow up to 1 ft. in length, incurring physical, inflammatory havoc on the digestive and organ tissues, and can even affect the brain when located in the sinus. When these spaces or “holes” occur in the gut, they allow larger food particles to leave the contained digestive system and become absorbed into the blood. This causes food intolerances and further inflammation and GI issues. It also prevents the sufferer from absorbing many of the nutrients in the food that they are eating. The food intolerances and symptoms caused by Candida and “leaky gut” are not as acutely serious as food allergies, where ingesting the offending food can cause anaphylaxis and/or system failure. But, if allowed to go untreated, they can cause serious inflammatory responses with lots of discomfort, bloating, pain, diarrhea and even vomiting in some cases.
A doctor once described the “leaky gut” condition often attributed to Candida albicans to me by describing the digestive system as a closed, separate system of tubes inside of your body. Normally, you eat food, swallow it, and it travels through your digestive system, being broken down and used by the body, and then secreted as waste. It is kept separate inside the digestive system. But, when Candida has created these wide holes or junctions in the gut, foods that were normally innocuous become inflammatory, because they are leaked into the bloodstream. In the bloodstream, the immune system identifies them as invaders and reacts with inflammation to fight them off. It can be a painful and very frustrating cycle for those suffering. I have known many mold patients who, at the height of their illness, could eat almost nothing, because they would react to EVERYTHING.
Another interesting fact about Candida that makes a lot of sense once you understand it is that glucan (the sugar receptor on the cell wall of Candida) has a similar structure to gluten; so about 30% of fungal allergic patients who have significant environmental fungal exposure are also allergic to gluten. Thus, in order for their mold symptoms to subside, these patients also have to adhere to a gluten free diet, because many of the gluten allergy symptoms overlap with those of Candida infections.
I often tell fellow mold sufferers that if they have addressed their environments and have properly detoxed, and don’t feel any better, then they should consider Candida overgrowth as the possible culprit. Since air fungus (mold) and/or Candida can cause severe systemic inflammation in patients who are hypersensitive to fungi, many cannot get better without addressing both equally. Systemic inflammation affects every organ system in the body and will not go away without getting rid of the Candida. Typical symptoms are muscle/joint pain, fibromyalgia, GI symptoms of bloating, gas, diarrhea, Esophageal acid reflux, multiple chemical and drug sensitivities (MCS), skin rashes, itching, psoriasis, bladder infections, interstitial cystitis, bladder paralysis, blindness, visual problems, chronic sinusitis, headaches, memory and cognitive dysfunction, pituitary dysfunction causing multiple hormone insufficiency, and connective tissue destruction. Sadly, because these symptoms are all over the map and haven’t subsided with a change of environment, many mold patients have many (often four or more) specialist physicians trying to treat each condition separately with a variety of anti-inflammatory, immune suppression, antibiotic, and antacid medications. These give temporary relief but do not address the cause of the problem (Candida overgrowth) and sometimes even make it worse. (Note: GERD-gastroesophageal reflux disease-where the esophageal sphincter weakens, allowing stomach acid to reflux back up the esophagus, casuing heartburn and tissue damage, can be both caused by and a cause of Candida. This is because if the esophageal mucosa is chronically inflamed, it is more susceptible to colonization by opportunistic yeast. The GERD/Candida connection is something I may write an entire post on, if there is enough interest. For now, I will say that if you have GERD, going on a Candida-specific diet and consulting with your doctor about antifungal medications could really improve your symptoms and give you some relief.)
The good news is that there is some testing that can help identify Candida overgrowth and some definite protocols that can successfully treat it.
Let’s start with testing first, because, just like with mold in your home, identifying the problem is the first step to properly treating it.
(Note: I realize that money is tight for most mold and environmental illness sufferers. We have been through it all and many times spent thousands already. So, for whatever this is worth, if you KNOW that you have been exposed to mold and made sick by mold in your indoor environment and have not been able to get well, there is a high probability that you are also suffering from Candida overgrowth. This testing is NOT a requirement for treatment. I am just offering the information, because many people want definitive answers prior to trying new treatments or protocols. On the other hand, you cannot hurt your recovery by adhering to the diet or supplement protocols outlined below. Obviously for a prescription antifungal, you will need a physician’s script. Although, most patients, if they get out of the exposure, adhere to the diet, properly clean their environment and clothing, and use the correct supplements, usually improve without them.)
Testing for Candida overgrowth:
- Stool testing – This test screens for candida in your colon or lower intestines. The lab can usually determine the species of yeast as well, which can aid in treatment strategy. A doctor must order a comprehensive stool test to obtain the correct information. A standard stool test will not suffice.
- Urine Organix Dysbiosis Test – This lab tests for Candida in your upper gut or small intestines. It will indicate whether levels of D-Arabinitol are elevated in your urine. D-Arabinitol is a waste product of Candida. Thus, if it is high, you likely have a Candida overgrowth.
- Blood test– This test can be done through most any lab. You want to have your levels checked for IgG, IgA, and IgM Candida antibodies. Elevated levels of Candida antibodies are indicative of Candida overgrowth. This test is definitely not the most definitive, though, because it can come back negative when stool and/or urine tests are positive for Candida.
- At home tests – Breath test – This isn’t a lab test, but you can breathe onto an EC3 Mold Screening Test Plate and culture it yourself to see if it grows mold colonies. Spit Test – Fill a clear glass with filtered or distilled water. Spit directly into the glass. Wait about 15 minutes. Those without Candida will have spit that floats and stays together as a glob in the top of the water. If you see “legs” forming from your spit to the bottom of the glass, you likely have Candida. Another clue is grainy sediment falling from your spit and congregating in the bottom of the glass. This supposedly is also a sign of an overgrowth. This is by no means a scientific test, so get any results validated by a doctor or naturopath.
Treating Candida Overgrowth:
So, you know or suspect that you have Candida overgrowth, now what? What steps should you take and what things can you do to be successful in 1) treating the overgrowth, and 2) not having an overgrowth reoccurrence. (Unfortunately, overgrowth reoccurrence is fairly common. Once Candida strains become resistant, it is harder and harder to get rid of them. Thus, I always suggest to do things—diet, environmental, supplements—to the letter and to the best of your ability the first go around, so that you can experience the highest probability for success.)
Long-term success comes from addressing the cause–fungus. This entails removing the fungi from the body and from the environmental air. In other words, the diet, supplements and antifungals are only parts of the overall equation. The more steps you can check off and follow, the greater your chances are for a complete recovery. That said, each person is different, so some may require more and some may require less. Start with #1, progress down the list and tweak things for your body and circumstance as you go.
Steps to eliminate Candida overgrowth include the following:
- Remove fungi from the environmental air. I know I sound like a broken record here, but this step can be simple or very complex. Without the fungal antigen, the body can recover its immune function. This is paramount to getting rid of a Candida overgrowth. Professional help is needed in most cases to identify the cause and plan a solution. Patients with severe toxic systemic symptoms will not improve unless they enter a mold free environment and not take anything from the contaminated environment with them. If this is done and the systemic damage is not permanent, recovery usually occurs within 5-8 weeks.
- Frequent, at least 2 times per day, saline nose washes and/or antifungal nasal sprays. The logic behind this is to eliminate fungus from entering the body at the source, the nose. This step addresses the Candida overgrowth, because it stops the cycle of inflammation that is suppressing the immune system and leading to the overgrowth in the first place. For the nasal washes, I recommend the Nasopure system with the CitriDrops Dietary Supplement added (2-3 drops per bottle). For an all-natural, non-prescription antifungal spray, I recommend the CitriDrops Nasal Spray. You can use the spray as frequently as you like, it is portable, and it will not interact with any prescription medications you are already taking. The added benefit of both the washes and the spray is that sinus symptoms will also subside if that is something you struggle with.
- Add antifungal supplements or pills to your regimen to counter the Candida overgrowth. For a prescription antifungal, you will need to see a medical doctor. I find the all-natural antifungals to be equally, if not more beneficial. Prescription antifungals include Diflucan and Nystatin. Natural antifungals include CitriDrops Dietary Supplement (8 drops added to 4 ounces of filtered water, 2 times per day), caprylic acid, oregano oil (this can be a little aggressive, because it can also kill beneficial bacteria, so proceed with caution), garlic, aloe Vera, combination treatments, like Candida Rid, and black walnut oil. There are many others, but those are the ones I have used and have had success with. (Note: A die-off reaction of lethargy, not feeling well, brain fog and fatigue is common for most people. This does not mean the antifungals are not working, quite the opposite. Just go slowly, starting with small doses and build to the suggested dosage gradually. You will start to clear the overgrowth and feel better with time. It is definitely not a sprint but a true progressive treatment.)
- If you were diagnosed with mycotoxicosis, heavy metal toxicity, or an MTHFR mutation, you may need detoxification with a functional medicine doctor. This step is VERY important, because if your body is unable to clear toxins properly, it will not be able to clear the Candida either without opening up detox pathways and getting all of the toxins or “junk” out of the way first. Many people get on a prescription antifungal, only to find symptoms and Candida return the minute the complete the prescription. This is because their systems are so clogged with other toxins that there is not immunity left to fight the Candida. Detoxification must therefore be a high priority and first step BEFORE any attempt to “kill or starve” the yeast. It is also important to note that many people, once they have properly detoxed, find that the Candida subsides significantly or altogether when their bodies are no longer toxic.
- If hormones are low or missing, replacement is mandatory for recovery. It has been scientifically proven that hormone levels affect susceptibility to Candida overgrowth. As a matter of fact, long-term use of birth control pill use is one of the leading causes of Candida infections. Also, because we know that living in a moldy environment can disrupt the pituitary, causing hormonal insufficiency and HPA-axis dysfunction or adrenal overdrive, it is a good idea to address this piece for that reason as well. If you have significant fatigue or systemic symptoms, you should seek a full pituitary hormone evaluation by a qualified endocrinologist. They will be able to see all of your levels and to determine whether or not this needs to be addressed. CellTropin supplementation is also helpful for this. It was designed by Dr. Dennis for his mold patients who need pituitary and hormonal support. He found that without it, those patients could not have the cellular regeneration and healing that needed to occur for their bodies to recover energy and wellness. I use it everyday and will continue to do so to support my energy levels.
- Change your diet to one low in carbohydrates and designed to starve Candida. Sugar is what feeds yeast, so eliminating sugar in all of its simple forms like candy, desserts, alcohol and flours is step number 1. Reducing to only one cup a day of the more complex carbohydrates such as grains, beans, fruit, bread, pasta, and potatoes will also prevent the Candida from growing and eventually cause it to die. There are many online resources for Candida Diets. Here is a link to Dr. Dennis’s anti-Candida diet protocol. Using diet alone can take three to six months before the Candida is back under control. Stay the course.
- You should take probiotics on a regular basis. It’s a must to restore the healthy bacteria that typically keep your candida population under control. Taking anywhere from 25 to 100 billion units of probiotics should help to reduce the Candida levels and restore your levels of good bacteria. I have had great results with Mary Ruth’s Liquid Probiotics, VSL #3, Visbiome, Essential Flora and Ancient Nutrition SBO Probiotic. I’ve also found that rotating probiotics periodically helps me to continue to experience positive upswings in my gut health.
- Heal your gut by eliminating inflammatory foods that can harm your GI tract and introduce foods that aid in digestion and nutrient absorption. This will prevent Candida from working its way through your body, and will dramatically improve your overall health. Inflammatory foods include cured, processed meats, refined cooking oils and margarine, sugar, dairy, fried foods, gluten, etc. Foods that aid in digestion include lemon, arugula, watercress, bitters, thyme, beet root, ginger and many more. Both lists can be easily accessed online. Ann Louise Gittleman has an excellent website full of REAL nutritional information back by science that can help you to better hone your list of optimal foods.
- Drink ONLY filtered, purified or spring water. You cannot drink tap water and get rid of Candida. Tap water contains chlorine which actively aids Candida proliferation, because it eliminates health gut bacteria, but does nothing to fungus.
Prevent Candida Overgrowth Reoccurrence:
As I said before, getting rid of the overgrowth is only half of the battle. Preventing it from coming back is the other half. Candida will recur with its gut and systemic symptoms in six instances: antibiotic use, drinking or cooking with chlorinated tap water (e.g., coffee & tea in restaurants), eating sugar or refined carbohydrates like bread, rice, and potatoes, overconsuming alcohol, heavy metal toxicity, Hypothyroidism (can have normal lab values), and going into environments with high mold counts or a combination of the above. Go through the steps in the list above and avoid reoccurrence triggers and you will be well on your way to better health and symptom elimination.
As always, if you have comments, questions, or your own experience to share, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would also like to hear from those of you who would be interested in further posts on this topic.