What is Mold Sensitivity?
Mold sensitivity is a complex and incompletely understood illness for which there is no good biological test to determine the exact nature of the body’s breakdown. Although a variety of markers may be helpful and point in the direction of mold sensitivity or toxicity as a factor in such symptoms as cough, mental fog, fatigue, allergic upper respiratory signs such as itching, congestion and excessive secretions, most of our patients who believe they have an illness related to mold exposure are frustrated by the lack of certainty and the wide-spread skepticism of mold as a factor in chronic illness among many conventional physicians. This is in spite of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statement that “excessive exposure to mold-contaminated materials can cause adverse health effects in susceptible persons regardless of the type of mold or the extent of contamination.”
What we believe at the Plum Spring Clinic
There are two aspects of mold exposure that can challenge our body’s ability to keep us healthy. The first is an exaggerated immune response to the presence of mold. Our immune system is designed to protect us from microorganisms and parasites but it can become confused and react to non-harmful agents such as food, pollen or mold. The immune system can be divided into two components: a part that depends on the activity of immune cells and the part that depends on the production of antibodies. In general, modern lifestyles and diets have created an imbalance in these two factors such that cell-mediated immune functions are depressed and antibody functions are exaggerated. The depression in cell-mediated immune function appears to be a factor in the increase in cancers (along with toxin exposures – and those two may be related). And the increase in antibody-mediated activity seems to be associated with an increase in allergies, sensitivities and auto-immune function.
The second aspect of mold exposure that compromises our body’s ability to keep us healthy is mold’s ability to create toxins that hurt us. The toxins that molds produce are called mycotoxins and little is known about their purpose — only that they can be highly toxic and cause illness and even death.
Individuality in Mold Illness
One of the defining aspects of mold sensitivity is how it can have a debilitating effect on one person living in the environment and not another. This also contributes to the skepticism that the illness is ‘real’ and really ‘just in someone’s head’. But this is actually understandable – we all have highly variable levels of immune hyper-reactivity and capacity to detoxify. Even a small difference in sensitivity and toxin load can have a huge difference in where a person’s symptom threshold lies.
In the absence of specific reliable testing, our approach has to be the general one we use to help many people with chronic illness, refined to specifically address immune hyper-reactivity and compromised toxin-handling capacity or excessive exposure.
What does this mean about how the Plum Spring Clinic helps people with Mold Illness?
The really good news is that we know a lot about how to restore balance in the immune system and support the body’s ability to detoxify. It is simple in theory. Here are the factors that influence the immune system: stress, leaky gut, dysbiosis, exercise, restorative sleep, replenishment of depleted nutrients, and identification and correction of metabolic factors that are related to a person’s genetics. Although simple in theory, the proper sequence and techniques to accomplish these goals require a skilled and experienced team.
The factors that influence the body’s ability to detoxify are the same as those that help restore balance in the immune system, with the addition of special attention paid to adequate hydration, elimination, and supply of the raw materials that the body needs to collect, package and excrete toxins. These things are known and can be integrated into the holistic approach used to restore balance to the immune system – again under the guidance of a skilled and experienced team. Few people can accomplish the complex dance of restoration of balance without good and trusted guides.
A special note from Dr. Sharp about the role of past trauma in Mold Illness
When I was in medical school many years ago, the biochemistry of the nerves and brain and the biochemistry of the immune system were taught as separate and unconnected. We now know this is not true and that there is an important if not completely understood connection. An example most people will be able to identify with is the effect on our mood of a virus. Most people experience a mood nearly indistinguishable from depression when they get, for example, the flu. The immune response, ie the presence of inflammatory cytokines, has a profound effect on neurotransmitters, and levels of serotonin (one of the feel-good chemicals in our body) especially seem to be affected by infection.
People with a history of trauma almost always have nervous systems that are in a state of hypervigilance. Our body is hardwired to try and protect us from danger when it feels unsafe and the systems that monitor and warn us about threats are in a state of extreme sensitivity if we have such a history. The immune systems of these same people seem to be in a similar state of hypersensitivity.
Let me give you an example. Let’s imagine you live in tribal community that is content. The hunting and gathering is plentiful, the harvest is abundant and the tribe is in good relationships with surrounding tribes. There is joy and happiness in the tribe and plentiful singing and dancing.
Then, one day, a valuable member of the tribe goes missing without explanation. People are a bit confused and worried. A week later, yet another member of the tribe is absent without cause. Confusion becomes alarm – especially when a report circulates in the tribe that a tiger has been spotted at the edge of one of the gardens. Imagine how the nervous systems of the tribe members begins to change. There is less joyful dancing. People begin to isolate – stay inside their homes. One day you are assigned to help harvest in the garden near where the tiger was seen. As you begin to collect your food you notice movement in the grass just yards away from where you are. You freeze in terror. Then you feel the wind on your face and you realize it was just the breeze that moved the grass. You have overreacted to something that was not truly a threat. This is what may happen to both the nervous and immune systems of people with trauma: a hypersensitivity to threat.
At the Plum Spring Clinic we have tools to help individuals when trauma is a factor in the imbalances contributing to mold sensitivity.