Why black mould could be ruining your family’s health

Has your home got damp and mouldy bits? Lots of people are finding it worse this year than they can remember. If you are living in the UK, this may boil down to the fact that we have had one of the wettest summer, autumn and winters on record.

Maybe to save on drying machine costs you’ve had to hang up clothes to dry indoors, which causes of condensation; or you’ve kept windows closed to keep the heat in. Perhaps a leaking gutter or a previous leak has caused water damage. It is easy to think that wiping the mould down with bleach, or even vinegar, will make the problem go away… until it reappears in a few weeks’ time.

It’s not just an aesthetic problem for our houses. Black mould and hidden mould in wall cavities can pose a health risk for many far reaching problems. There is also evidence that mycotoxins can be found in some grains, coffee, soya beans, dried fruit and peanuts if improperly stored, which again can affect our health quite significantly.

The mycotoxins from mould can dysregulate the immune system which over time can lead to immune deficiency and autoimmunity as well as chronic inflammation and even cancer. In fact, nearly all of the systems of the body can potentially be affected by mould lurking in your home.

There is a well-established link between mould and symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, histamine issues such as hives, postnasal drip, eczema, shallow breathing, recurrent urine infections or an irritable bladder; as well as chronic fatigue and even some psychiatric symptoms and developmental delay in children.

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How mould can affect the body

You don’t have to touch mould for it to be a problem. Mould releases toxic compounds into the air called mycotoxins. These are inhaled through the nose and move into the lungs, past the lungs’ clearing defences, through the lining of the alveoli and into the bloodstream, allowing them to travel around the body.

Mycotoxins are lipophilic (which means fat loving), which enables them to go right through the cell membranes and damage our mitochondria. Mitochondria  are the battery powerhouses within each cell, and where we create energy and vitality, so any damage to our mitochondria will affect our energy levels. There is emerging research suggesting that mycotoxins may play a role in severity of Covid-19 infections and some cases of Long Covid.

Mycotoxins can also cross the blood brain barrier, and can exert neurotoxic effects on our brain’s neurons, leading to issues with memory, cognitive function, brain fog and anxiety. One meta study found that exposure to mycotoxins can exacerbate the neurological, gastric and inflammatory challenges often experienced by autistic people.

Early life exposure to household mould can play a role in neurodevelopmental delays such a difficulties with balance and trouble walking in a straight line with closed eyes, as well as overall slower physical coordination. Affected children are more likely to be forgetful and be slower to learn and process new information. They tend to have more problems with vision, colour blindness and blink excessively.

What are the symptoms of illness from mould?

Mould sickness is a group of symptoms that can result from a heavy toxic load of mycotoxins within the body. Often this is due to low level chronic exposure from living in a water-damaged building and can mean symptoms creep up slowly. This can make mould sickness difficult to identify and its significance is often overlooked.

Each mycotoxin has its own affinity for different parts of the body and will probably have a different source. This is why testing a range of mycotoxins both in the home and the body can be helpful, allowing specific targeted support to be given. However, most mould and mycotoxins have a generalised overall negative effect on the brain, gut, skin, nervous system, and may lead to chronic inflammatory conditions and mitochondrial dysfunction.

Mycotoxins can be hugely disruptive to the immune system. They have a direct action on immune cells, causing slow healing times, reduced ability to fight infection, and a hypersensitivity to the environment. This is particularly so in young children whose immune systems are still developing and may mean they are more likely to struggle with viruses and experience frequent wheezing and prolonged coughing. There is a higher risk that that they become highly sensitive or allergic to a wide range of foods or environmental allergens.

Brain & neurological health
Mycotoxins can impair neuronal plasticity in the brain which can contribute to brain fog, cognitive decline, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. These cognitive impairments and mental health changes have been described as similar to those experienced by people with mild traumatic brain injury. Mycotoxins can induce damage by increasing oxidative stress, specifically targeting and damaging cells in the nervous system.

These toxins from moulds may also affect the myelin sheaths of the nerves which can lead to multiple sclerosis and may play a role in the onset of other neurological illness such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Frequent urination and urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common when mould is in play. A mycotoxin called ochratoxin (which is one of the most prevalent mycotoxins lurking in buildings from water damage), binds tightly to a blood protein called albumin. The kidneys try very hard to get rid of this mycotoxin by giving us the urge to pee. However, our body needs to retain the albumin, so no matter how hard the kidneys try to expel it, the ochratoxin remains in the system. Long-term exposure can lead to kidney damage.

Lungs and breathing

The body is very clever, so with mycotoxins wreaking havoc it responds by reducing intake of air, so shortness of breath/shallow breathing is seen. Mycotoxins can also be responsible for wheezing, recurrent chest infections, persistent coughs and that pesky postnasal drip.

Inhalation of mycotoxins and mould spores cause a dramatic rise in the overall allergy response, known as total IgE. This puts the immune system on hyper alert and increases allergic histamine reactions such as hives, flushing, itching, nasal congestion, sneezing and migraines.

Skin and hair
Exposure to mould as a foetus in mum’s tummy has been associated with the development of atopic dermatitis in children, so eczema is often seen in little ones. In adults, recurrent fungal infections like thrush, athlete’s foot or jock itch can be linked to mould exposures.

Finally, with mycotoxins being a protein inhibitor, hair loss, hair thinning or slow growth of hair is not uncommon.

What you can do to help reduce mould issues

Here are my top tips to ensure mould cannot begin to grow in the first place:

  • Invest in an air purifier. My favourite is the Electriq EAP500HC which is designed for large rooms and has 7 filters, including a composite HEPA and carbon filters.
  • Get rid of steam. Open bathroom windows and make sure extractor fans are on, clean and working.
  • Let your house breathe. Open the windows and ensure your furniture is not touching the walls, especially the beds.
  • Have a clear out. Mycotoxins love clutter, so it is best to declutter to create better circulation of air.
  • Dust and hoover. Mycotoxins are heavy, so when they are released into the atmosphere, they can cling to dust and fall onto surfaces and the floor. Using a vacuum which has a HEPA filter is key.
  • Purify the air naturally with house plants. Many houseplants effectively filter volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air around them: English ivy, snake plants, spider plants, moth orchids, Chinese evergreen, peace lilies, parlour palms can all help.

If you suspect that mould could be an issue, especially when it gets to the point of visible black mould, I recommend the following:

  • Investigate and remediate your home. There are risks to doing this yourself. Any disruption to the area around the mould will aggravate it, causing it to break into small fragments (a single mould spore can break into 500 tiny fragments) and then travel further into the lungs, past the lungs’ clearing defences. This will also cause the increase in mould mycotoxins, as dying mould release more mycotoxins than living mould and has a more toxic effect. So you should consider using a professional specialist company. At NatureDoc, we have had good feedback from clients who have used Pure Maintenance.
  • Complete a full mycotoxin test. This is a urine test which will assess the level of a wide range of different mycotoxins built up in the body. The clinical team at NatureDoc can order the test and are all well versed in interpreting these results.
  • Removal of mould and mycotoxins in the body. This is vital as they do not easily leave the body unassisted. Work with a nutritional therapist with mycotoxin experience to support the gentle removal of the mycotoxins from the body using specialist supplements called binders.
  • Optimise your nutrition. A nutritional therapist with a special interest in mould can advise you on which specific nutrients are needed, as mould can deplete certain vitamins and minerals. They can also help to support and reinvigorate the systems of the body that have been affected by the mould and mycotoxins such as the liver and the kidneys.

Round up

The thought of your house being the reason you’re unwell can leave you feeling both trapped and vulnerable in the very place you’re meant to feel safe. Recovering from mould-related illness is possible, but it can be a long and challenging process.

I am not sitting here in an ivory tower, as I too fell victim to mould – from a secondary school which flooded each year, and then more recently living in a mould-riddled house whilst pregnant and while my very young son was a baby, which detrimentally affected our health. I now use my own healing journey from mould and years of experience in clinic to support my clients with mould-related symptoms.

Above are the tips that you can get started with. But if you suspect that mould illness could be at the root cause (or at the very least a contributing factor), and you would really value some one-to-one support from a mould expert such as myself or the NatureDoc clinical team, then book in to assess your mycotoxin levels and we can guide you through your personalised health journey.

Emma-Louise Winter is a nutritional therapist and key member of our NatureDoc nutritional therapy team. She has trained with the world-renowned Dr Jill Crista who specialises in mould and mycotoxins.

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