“Mold Brain” Is Real and Can Make You Forgetful, Disorganized, Depressed, and Anxious
Of the many stories about mold toxicity that are shared with me, those that impact me the most are from readers suffering from “mold brain,” or neurological decline and disorders that impact mood, thinking, and behavior, such as depression and anxiety. Some have symptoms so extreme, they fear permanent brain damage from the mold toxins. What may have started for these mold sufferers as “minor” memory issues, like trouble finding familiar words, places, or names, suddenly morphs into more troubling cognitive symptoms, like being completely unable to concentrate, perform daily job responsibilities, or to learn and retain information. These experiences can obviously be terribly unsettling, because many of these same individuals were high-performing students, professionals, teachers, or athletes before their symptoms set in and became worrisome and/or debilitating.
Another common thread in these personal stories is that many of these people actually had symptoms of mold toxicity, like fatigue, sinus infections, joint pain, headaches, sore throats, itchy skin, dry eyes, etc., preceding their cognitive decline, but willingly ignored them and “muscled through,” despite feeling crappy. When the neurological symptoms hit, though, disregarding their bodies was no longer an option. Not being able to think straight or to command your thoughts seems to be the final straw that no one takes lightly, because bigger fears of dementia and Alzheimer’s set in. Trouble with brain function is also a symptom that most people inherently know is not going to go away on its own and one that will likely get worse without intervention. This can actually be a blessing, because it sends even the strongest to the doctor or health professional for examination, testing, and analysis. Unfortunately, though, most medical professionals only look to expensive imaging and blood diagnostics and ignore the environmental factors (mold) as part of the equation.
Real-life Examples of “Mold-Brain”
To give you concrete illustrations of what mold-induced, depleted brain function can look like for a sufferer, I will share the following stories:
(Note: I chose these stories, because they are well-documented and able to be referenced online for further reading and research. I also chose them, because each sufferer had documented evidence of water damage and mold in their indoor environments at the time of their neurological symptoms. In addition, each was treated by a well-respected and top doctor in the field of neurology and psychiatry.)
In his movie Moldy, Dave Asprey shares his story of going in to have a single-photon emission computerized tomography or SPECT scan done on his brain. (Note: A SPECT scan is a type of nuclear imaging test, which means it uses a radioactive substance and a special camera to create 3-D pictures to show the function of some of your internal organs. The images show things, like how blood flows to your heart or what areas of your brain are more active or less active.) At the time, Asprey was a high-performing engineer and getting his MBA at Wharton. He was also working full time at a startup, but was struggling mentally. Says Asprey, “I would sit down to do one of my tests and I would get 100% of the first question, I would get 50% of the next one, and I couldn’t remember my name on the third question . . . I felt that there’s something wrong with me. I ended up even having extra time assigned for the tests and I still struggled. I did graduate, but barely.”
Asprey did not know it at the time, but he was living in a moldy space and the mold was wrecking his brain. He was not used to thinking or functioning sub-optimally. His scan revealed that his brain was very clearly under attack. The doctor who reviewed the images of his brain stated that Asprey’s brain looked “like swiss cheese” and like the brain of a “heavy drug user.” The doctors even went as far to question Asprey’s wife about his possible drug use, because they were suspect of his not telling them the truth after seeing the pictures of his brain.
After his scan, Asprey was able to connect with Dr. Daniel Amen and his professional network of medical practitioners—Amen is a current leader in the use of SPECT imaging for neuropsychiatry treatment and brain rehabilitation. Asprey was then able to figure out the mold piece of the puzzle, get out of the exposure, and bring his brain back to a healthy and high-functioning state.
Another example of “mold brain” is in a popular essay by Dr. Mary Ackerley, Brain on Fire: The Role of Mold in Triggering Psychiatric Symptoms—I recommend it to anyone wishing to gain a better understanding of this topic. In it, Dr. Ackerley, a now highly-regarded mold and environmental-illness physician, discusses the many ways and mechanisms by which biotoxins create a cycle of inflammation that can alter and disable the brain.
Ackerley recounts her first experience with a “mold case” by telling the story of a female patient in her seventies. On this particular day, the woman was very late to her appointment. When she finally arrived, her appearance, usually well put together and stylish, was completely disheveled. She was late to the appointment, because she had gotten lost on her way to Ackerley’s office. Mind you, this was a route this patient had taken countless times before. Highly concerned, Ackerley questioned her about things happening in her life. She revealed she had been having work done on her home and that during the work, a large amount of black mold was found behind walls. It had been cleaned, but no containment had been put into place and no safety precautions taken. She had been having trouble with brain fog, icepick-like pain, sinus issues, and cognition ever since.
It was then that Ackerley thought of a book that had been given to her: Mold Warriors by Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker (a groundbreaking book at the time discussing mold and biotoxin illness, the inflammatory pathway, and how to treat it). Trying fairly harmless treatment from the book to test the mold theory, she put the patient on a chemical, bile acid binder called cholestyramine (historically used to bind to cholesterol to prevent absorption in the gut). A few weeks later, the patient came back and was herself again. Describing the difference, Ackerley says, “She came back three weeks later and I was looking at a different person. It was a very startling experience. She was on time for her appointment, looking alert and put together. She was coherent and neatly dressed. It was like a really different person. The only thing that had been changed was adding cholestyramine. It was very impressive to me that something that I was calling pre-dementia had been eradicated.”
It was a profound enough experience for Ackerley that it altered the way she had been thinking about psychiatry and pushed her to focus more on inflammation its impact on the brain. Once she knew to look for it, Ackerley found that mold was deeply at the core of many of her patients’ issues (as an intergrative psychiatrist, her patient population mainly consisted of those who had not been helped by traditional psychiatry and psychiatric meds). Ackerley is now one of the country’s most-well-regarded mold-literate doctors. Also, now that she knows how mold and chronic inflammation impact the brain, she frequently uses NeuroQuant analysis to evaluate and chart the progress of many of her patients.
(Note: NeuroQuant® is a software program approved by the FDA for measuring brain MRI volume. NeuroQuant® automatically identifies several MRI brain regions and measures the volume of each. These data are then compared to MRI data from normal control subjects. The test identifies 15 brain regions, comparing all 15 to normal controls, and examining longitudinal change. It is an invaluable tool for identifying toxic and traumatic brain injury.)
Mold, Mycotoxins and Neurotoxicity
Mycotoxins are poisons! They are neurotoxins, hepatotoxins, nephrotoxins, immunotoxins, and so forth. They cause damage at the molecular level in addition to an inflammatory response. Thus, the idea that mold toxins can impact the brain and brain function is not technically a new one. There is decades-old scientific literature about the impact of mold toxins in food and animal feed on behaviors and health. Many of the most common mycotoxins found in contaminated grains and feed are also known neurotoxins. In addition, one of the only fungal infections covered in medical school is Aspergillosis, an invasive fungal infection usually affecting immunocompromised patients from inhaled, touched, or ingested mold spores that can cross the blood-brain barrier and spread to various organs, including the brain. If left untreated, it can be fatal.
Even with this historic knowledge of the potential dangers of mold and mycotoxins and the fact that they are inhaled, their negative impact when the exposure is mostly from an indoor environment is much less known, acknowledged, or studied. This seems a little strange, given the fact that many of the same neurotoxic mycotoxins (and more if you also consider that the bacteria, viruses, mycoplasma, chemicals, etc. in most water-damaged indoor environments are also neurotoxins) are present in wet indoor environments. It has not been until recently that the extreme attack of mycotoxins directly on the brain has been specifically looked at and analyzed due to the catastrophic water damage caused by hurricanes and flooding in the US.
How and Why Do Mold Mycotoxins Harm the Brain?
In order to understand how mycotoxins from mold harm the brain, it is first important to understand how a toxin, like mold, can reach the brain in the first place.
(Note: I am obviously not a doctor; therefore, the following explanation is a very brief and very simplified version of an intricate and complicated process.)
A toxin is a poisonous substance produced by a living thing. Toxins are usually very unstable and capable of causing tissue damage and inducing antibody formation when introduced to the body. The mycotoxins produced by molds seem to be so dangerous to humans, because exposure is ongoing and in high concentrations, especially in a tight, air-conditioned, indoor environment. In those environments, the inhabitants are constantly inhaling and in contact with mold spores and fragments, and the gases or mycotoxins emitted by them. Further, some of the more toxic molds found in water-damaged homes (like Aspergillus and Stachybotrys) produce multiple mycotoxins, and most of these homes have more than one species of mold growing. Thus, as you can imagine, the toxic onslaught to the inhabitants is by large numbers of multiple mycotoxins at the same time.
It has also been identified that 25-28% of the population has a genetic inability to process/clear mold toxins, which leads to the inability to metabolize in a series of biochemical alterations in their bodies that causes the toxins to build up and recirculate, rather than be filtered, sequestered, and safely expelled from the body. As the person continues to live in the mold, their body becomes more and more toxic. This is also why, when someone becomes sick from mold, symptoms are so hard to pinpoint for a diagnosis, because they affect multiple systems in the body. For example, the “typical” mold patient displays 23 symptoms, some of which include fatigue, weakness, muscle aches and pains, headache, light sensitivity, red eyes, sinus infections, shortness of breath, anxiety, depression, sweats, frequent urination, increased thirst, weight gain/loss, GI issues, static shocks, tremors, and on and on.
When a person is living in or chronically exposed to a “sick” indoor environment, their body is constantly releasing pro-inflammatory cytokines (small secreted proteins released by cells that have a specific effect on the interactions and communications between cells). Cellular communication is affected (the immune system is on overdrive) and instead of shutting the toxins out, the constant inflammation increases the permeability of the cells and of the blood/brain barrier. This is how the mold toxins gain direct access to the brain, tissues and organs.
Examples of some neurotoxic mycotoxins and the impact they can have on the brain include trichothecenes–kills off olfactory neurons (possible reason behind chemical sensitivity in many mold patients), Fusarium–kills off normal brain cells indiscriminately, and Ochratoxin (Aspergillus)–depletes dopamine and is associated with mood and movement disorders, like Parkinson’s.
What Does “a Brain on Mold” Look Like?
NeuroQuant testing and SPECT scan brain imaging lend pictorial illustrations to what is going on in a brain when mold toxins are circulating and disrupting normal processes and function. SPECT scans of mold-toxic brains even show us that most mold-toxic brains display an overall decrease in blood flow to all areas of the brain. Instead of smooth, rounded edges, brains appear scalloped and irregular. Some areas show constant activity, whereas others are totally unreactive.
NeuroQuant analysis shows that mold toxins alter brain size and volume. NeuroQuant comparisons revealed mold patients experience a swelling of the frontal lobes, the hippocampus and the cerebellum, and a shrinkage of the caudate.
So, what does all of this mean in plain English?
- The frontal lobe is where the executive function is found. Executive function is a term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation. The following symptoms can be explained by damage to the frontal lobe:
- Problems with paying attention and focusing;
- Visual perception issues;
- Problems with calculation, such as figuring out a tip;
- Problems finding words;
- Trouble organizing and planning;
- Trouble with self-regulation of emotions;
- Trouble keeping track of what is going on as well as what you are doing.
- The hippocampus is associated with memory. Damage to the hippocampus can result in poor impulse control, hyperactivity, and difficulty with spatial navigation or memory.
- The cerebellum is associated with movement disorders. This explains the tremors, palsies, and Parkinson’s-like symptoms some mold patients endure.
- The caudate is very dopamine rich and is highly associated with moods and feeling good. This can result in loss of drive, OCD behavior, and can increase impulsive behavior and the drive to eat sugary foods or drink alcohol, because the dopamine, or feel-good center is shrunken and not responding to normal stimuli. It also leads to hopelessness.
Is “Mold Brain” Permanent?
The silver lining here is that ALL of this damage can be reversed. As soon as the toxic onslaught and source of inflammation (aka mold) is removed, the brain can begin to heal. Then, undergoing proper treatment and detox helps the body to clear the mold toxins to an even greater degree. This usually results in any brain abnormalities and dysfunction subsiding.
I love the ability of the brain to heal so completely from mold exposure, because it exemplifies “treating-the-cause” medicine at its best. Remove the cause of the symptoms, and homeostasis will eventually return. Unfortunately, though, for mold sufferers, the cause can have many iterations and nuances, and can involve a home and belongings that you are very attached to. It can also involve other sources of exposure that are less in your control, like where you work, or the outdoor environment in which you live. So, the “cause” must be considered in all contexts of your life to stay well.
What Can You Do to Protect Your Brain?
The MOST important treatment and the one I preach endlessly is AVOIDANCE, AVOIDANCE, AVOIDANCE. If you can avoid coming into contact mold, you can become and stay well. That is also why, in this increasingly toxic world, that we need to implement the habits and routine practices that help us to avoid mold, keep our bodies free of mold, and increase our natural defenses against mold. Continuous exposure to mold prevents your body from healing itself.
Steps to Take to Protect Yourself and Your Brain from Mold Toxins:
- Test your home for mold. Use an indoor environmental professional, Building Biologist, or environmental hygienist to help you assess if there is a mold problem and how to go about fixing it. You can also do some inexpensive plate testing or diagnostic testing yourself before you call in the professionals.
- If your home has a mold problem, even if it is for 3 days, take a “vacation” from the mold. This might mean staying with a friend, going camping, renting a room somewhere, etc. Whatever you can do, leave the space and take nothing with you. Bringing any belongings could bring the mold with you and not allow you the reprieve necessary for your body to calm down, and for you to think straight. Being away from the mold, even for a short time, “unmasks” the impact that it has on you, so that when you return, you can listen to your body’s signals better and make better decisions about what to do to move forward.
- If you are sensitive to mold, make sure to avoid musty indoor places and to avoid going inside buildings with known or visible water damage.
- Your brain detoxifies while you are sleeping. When you sleep, the toxins are removed via cerebral spinal fluid. Adequate sleep is essential. Protect your sleep and make sure you get enough of it.
- Rinse your nose 1-2 times daily with a saline rinse system and an added antifungal, like CitriDrops Dietary Supplement.
- Take protective supplements, like Milk Thistle and Quercetin, to prevent your body from holding onto and recirculating mold toxins.
- Build your bile production to ensure that toxins can be pushed to the liver for excretion. Low bile production will cause binders to be less effective. Bitter foods stimulate bile as do supplements, like bitters drops and Ox Bile.
- Consider taking a binder, like charcoal, Zeolite, Chlorella, or bentonite clay to bind to the toxins to prevent absorption to make them more easily excreted from the body. Use of binders prevents the recirculation of toxins in the body.
- Eliminate tap water and sugary foods from your diet. Tap water contains harmful chemicals, fluoride, and chlorine, all which contribute to mold growth in the body. Sugary foods enable molds to become more invasive once inside the body. Eliminating both can take away the “food supply” that allows yeast and Candida to overgrow and make you sick.
- Use Sinus Defense 2-3 times a day to increase your immunity to mold allergens. Continued use can lessen the inflammatory response and allow your brain to heal more and more over time. You will notice that a “mold hit” isn’t as significant a setback and that the brain fog response lessens as well.