Mental health is one topic that I have not yet approached in any of my blog posts, until now that is. I suppose I have felt apprehensive about discussing this topic, since mental illness still carries so much stigma in our society. Even in the natural/alternative health world, mental illness can be difficult to talk about because many of us don’t want out friends or family to know that we have struggled, or are currently struggling with mental health issues. However, chronic illness seems to more often than not lead to some sort of struggle with mental health. I believe that a significant portion of the mental health struggle chronic illness sufferers face is related to the fact that our lives have been changed so dramatically due to illness, and these changes can be emotionally harrowing. Many of us have had to give up certain favorite activities, goals or careers. Many of us have lost friends and other important relationships. We are worried about finances, and must contend with anxiety about the state of our health. However, chronic illness can also affect mental health in a physiological way. One method by which chronic illness can affect mental health (aka neuropsychiatric health) is via the production of toxins that impact the neurological system. Bacteria, parasites, and fungi all produce biotoxins that can significantly affect mental health. These toxins are insidious, and can cause numerous – and often severe – neuropsychiatric issues that are resistant to conventional treatments such as talk therapy and drugs. In my experience, mycotoxins in particular have had profound effects on my mental health. I struggled for years with mental health issues that simply could not be resolved with therapy, drugs, or positive self-talk. When I finally learned that toxins might be impacting my brain and causing my anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms, I felt as though a great mystery had been solved. I hope that if you are suffering from mental health issues, that this post can help you realize that what you are feeling is not “all in your head.”
What Are Mycotoxins?
Many of you are likely already familiar with mycotoxins. As a quick review, mycotoxins are compounds that are produced by microfungi and are capable of causing disease in both humans and animals. The most common routes of exposure to mycotoxins are by ingestion of contaminated foods, and through skin exposure and inhalation in environments containing toxigenic molds, such as water-damaged buildings. A few examples of mycotoxins include aflatoxin (produced by Aspergillus), Zearalenone (produced by Fusarium), and trichothecenes (produced by Stachybotrys aka black mold) (Bennett & Klich, 2003).
According to a 2007 article titled “The Validity of the Environmental Neurotoxic Effects of Toxigenic Molds and Mycotoxins,” the most frequent toxic molds found in Europe are Aspergillus, Penicillium, and Fusarium species. In the United States, the most common toxic molds are Alternaria, Cladosporium, Aspergillus, Penicillium, Stachybotrys, Curvularia, Basidiomycetes, Myxomycetes, Smuts, Epicoccus, Fusarium, Bipolaris, and Rhizopus. According to the author of the article, “It is accepted in Europe and elsewhere that the mycotoxins produced by these toxigenic molds are particularly a risk for human health” (Anyanwu, 2007). Exposure to toxigenic molds can produce an extremely wide range of symptoms across many different body systems. My goal here is to examine how mycotoxins impact one particular body system – the neurological system – and how this can lead to the neuropsychiatric health issues.
How Mold Affects Mood and Mental Health
Listed below are some of the most common neuropsychiatric symptoms caused by mycotoxins:
- Mood swings
- Brain Fog
- Short Attention Span
- Difficulty Concentrating
- Memory Loss
- Poor Short-Term Memory
- Aggression and Personality Changes
Research on Mental Health Disorders and Mold Exposure:
- A study done in Europe on 6,000 adults found that the level of depression in people living in moldy households was 34-40% higher than in people who did not live in moldy houses (Shenassa et. al, 2007).
- Loss of appetite, isolation behavior, fatigue, and irritability are all behaviors associated with depression, but they are also all behaviors associated with high levels of inflammatory cytokines such as TNF and interleukin-6 (Dowlati et. al., 2010). Mycotoxin exposure increases inflammatory cytokines. Therefore, mycotoxin exposure may lead to a higher risk of developing depression.
- Inflammatory cytokines decrease the function and expression of serotonin. Inflammatory cytokines are released in response to mycotoxins and other biotoxins such as lipopolysaccharides and endotoxins. Decreased function and expression of serotonin may lead to treatment-resistant depression (or at least, conventional SSRI treatment-resistant depression) (Miller, 2009).
- Quinolinic acid, a highly inflammatory substance present in cerebrospinal fluid (and thus in the brain) is a potent cause of inflammation and is linked with neuropsychiatric symptoms. Quinolinic acid has been found to be increased in the CSF of people who have made suicide attempts and survived. Quinolinic acid is produced by Lyme spirochetes. It may also be one of the inflammatory products produced upon exposure to toxigenic molds. Therefore, suicidal thoughts may be part of a critical inflammatory state caused by infection and exposure to biotoxins such as mycotoxins (“Mary Ackerley: Brain on Fire,” n.d.)
- Psychosis, Bipolar disorder, and Schizophrenia have all been linked to inflammation, of which mycotoxin exposure is a major cause (“Mary Ackerley: The Brain on Fire,” n.d.).
Mechanisms of Mycotoxin Exposure and Mental Health Issues
Vitamin B12 Deficiency:
Interestingly, vitamin B12 deficiency has been found consistently in patients with confirmed exposure to toxic molds and mycotoxins. It has been hypothesized that mycotoxins interfere with the structure and function of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is crucial for neurological function and the maintenance of optimal mental health, so the interference of vitamin B12 structure and function by mycotoxins may be one mechanism by which mycotoxin exposure causes neurological and mental health problems (Anyanwu, 2007).
Mycotoxin exposure leads to an increase in the production of inflammatory cytokines within the body. These inflammatory cytokines can cause the brain to become inflamed, leading to neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder. Brain inflammation can also be caused by other substances such as lipopolysaccharides. In water-damaged buildings, mycotoxins often coexist with other pathogenic microorganisms that produce substances called lipopolysaccharides. In animal studies, lipopolysaccharides (LPS) have been found to cause inflammation of the brain stem via increased expression of interleukin-1B. This type of brain inflammation may cause developmental delays in children, and may predispose one towards developing neurodegenerative disease. Exposure to LPS may also predispose one towards developing dopaminergic neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, autism, cerebral palsy, and even schizophrenia (Hope, 2013).
A combination of mycotoxins and endotoxins (toxins from the cell membranes of certain types of bacteria) can lead to increases in cortisol and epinephrine (Hope, 2013). These two substances play huge roles in mental function, and chronic increases in their levels can lead to anxiety, brain fog, panic attacks, aggression, and numerous other mental disturbances.
Trichothecenes can cause damage to neurons, the cells of the nervous system. This leads to faulty cell signaling and broken neuronal pathways in the brain (“Toxic Black Mold Symptoms). Some types of mycotoxins also demyelinate neurons. Myelin is the protective fatty sheath that surrounds neurons and ensures that they transmit signals properly. When the neuron is demyelinated, cell signaling is disrupted. This suggests that mycotoxin exposure may play a role in neurodegenerative diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
Inhibition of Protein Synthesis:
Much of the toxicity from trichothecenes, produced by black mold, is believed to be the result of inhibition of protein synthesis. Inhibition of protein synthesis leads to derangement of numerous body functions.
Synergistic Effects with Other Toxins:
Of note, interaction of mycotoxins with other toxins such as pesticides can magnify detrimental neurological effects (Hope, 2013).
These various methods by which mycotoxins affect neurological function and mental health are profound, as they suggest that neurological disorders and mental health disorders may not be hopeless causes, but may in fact be instigated by exposure to toxic mold and mycotoxins. The good news is that toxic mold exposure can be treated, and therefore, previously “untreatable” neurological and mental health disorders may in fact be quite treatable.
My Experience with Mycotoxin Exposure and Mental Health Issues:
Exposure to mycotoxins over an extended period of time can lead to neurological and mental health symptoms, but in my experience, brief exposures can be just as detrimental. I personally experienced many of these neurological symptoms while unknowingly living last year in an apartment that was contaminated with mold. Even further back, towards the very beginning of college, I developed anxiety and deep depression while living in a 100-year old dorm building that was definitely moldy. Looking back, I believe that it really kicked-off my mold and mental health struggles. Now, if I even step into a moldy building for a few minutes, my anxiety literally is set on fire. As a result, I avoid moldy buildings at all costs.
In my mold treatment protocol, I have found Poly MVA IVs and binders such as bentonite clay and activated charcoal to be the most effective for quelling my mental health symptoms related to mold and mycotoxins. Poly MVA, a palladium lipoic-acid complex, helps to detox mycotoxins from the brain when administered intravenously, as it is able to cross the blood-brain barrier. I have found these IVs to have a very calming effect on my body. If I somehow have an acute exposure to mold, bentonite clay and activated charcoal literally help calm my mycotoxin-induced anxiety in a matter of maybe 30 minutes. I am still trying to figure out if cholestyramine is a good option for me when it comes to mold detoxification. I found that I was having trouble with my short-term memory, and severe drops in energy, when I pursued cholestyramine treatment in the past. I may try it again in the future.
Anyanwu, E. (2007). The validity of the environmental neurotoxic effects of toxigenic molds and mycotoxins. The Internet Journal of Toxicology, 5(2). Retrieved from http://ispub.com/IJTO/5/2/11373.
Bennett1, J.W. and Klich, M. (2003). Mycotoxins. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 16(3): 497-515. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC164220/.
Dowlati, Y., Herrmann, N., Swardfager, W., et al. (2010). A meta-analysis of cytokines in major depression. Biological Psychiatry, 67(5): 446-457. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20015486.
Hope, J. (2013). A review of the mechanism of injury and treatment approaches for illness resulting from exposure to water-damaged buildings, mold, and mycotoxins. The Scientific World Journal [online]. doi: 10.1155/2013/767482.
Mary Ackerley: The Brain on Fire: The role of toxic mold in triggering psychiatric symptoms. Surviving Mold [online]. Retrieved from https://www.survivingmold.com/community/mary-ackerley-the-brain-on-fire-the-role-of-toxic-mold-in-triggering-psychiatric-symptoms.
Miller, A.H., Maletic, V., Raison, C.L. (2009). Inflammation and its discontents: the role of cytokines in the pathophysiology of major depression. Biological Psychiatry, 65:732-741. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19150053.
Shenassa, E.D., Daskalakis, C., Liebhaber, A., Braubach, M., Brown M. (2007). Dampness and mold in the home and depression: an examination of mold-related illness and perceived control of one’s home as possible depression pathways. American Journal of Public Health, 97(10):1893-9.
Toxic Black Mold Symptoms. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://blackmold.awardspace.com/black-mold-toxic-stachybotrys-mycotoxins.html.