When a patient walks into a doctor’s office complaining of sleep issues, mycotoxins (poisonous mold spores) are rarely a consideration, much less a diagnosis. Due to the myriad of symptoms associated with insomnia or sleep disturbances, mold toxicity from a damp indoor environment is hardly ever considered as a cause for disturbed sleep. Even though these troubling symptoms are often tell-tale indicators of mold exposure, mycotoxins are regularly overlooked by doctors.
Mycotoxins are a toxic secondary metabolite produced by organisms of the fungus kingdom (read: mold) and is capable of causing disease and death in both humans and other animals.
Since May is Better Sleep Month, it’s a good time to consider looking into all possible causes for your sleep issues. But why should mold be considered as the cause, unless your sleep issues are also accompanied by allergy symptoms or breathing difficulties, right? Well, if you’ve been having trouble sleeping and have explored other treatments to no avail, mold may be the missing piece to your puzzle.
“I spent more than a year trying to hack my sleep. I tried every natural remedy known to man and considered myriad possibilities,” explains Maryam Henein, founder of HoneyColony and functional medicine consultant.
And then, while attending the online toxic mold summit, it hit me like a ton of bricks. When I returned to my apartment I got even sicker and then conducted proper tests to learn that what was in my bathroom was also in my body. I was suffering from high levels of a mycotoxin called Ochratoxin.
Mold Toxins And Sleep
To back up a little, sleep is designed to be the body’s healing and recovery time. During sleep, we become disengaged from our surroundings, our muscles relax, breathing slows, blood pressure and body temperature drops, tissues grow and repair and growth hormone is released. There is actually a proven halt in growth hormone production for those with mold toxicity. During sleep, our energy is restored and our brains get rid of excess amyloid beta proteins, so that they do not become toxic byproducts and later lead to dementia or Alzheimer’s as we age. Put simply, sleep is important and the body needs it desperately for health and longevity.
When someone has been living in a damp, moldy space, and bombarded by unhealthy levels of mold over time, they are unable to properly process and excrete the mycotoxins (secondary metabolites produced by some molds — think of them as “bad gas” from mold). The toxic build-up ignites a cycle of inflammation that can negatively influence every system in the body, making natural detox even more difficult and less effective over time. The mold and all of the other microbes, bacteria, microfungi, viruses, and toxins that we now know accompany mold in damp indoor environments start to disrupt normal sleep patterns as the inflammation cascade continues. Mold symptoms such as a racing heart, chronic pain, migraines, acid reflux, low thyroid, hormonal instability, elevated toxic load, inflammation, anxiety, and breathing difficulties (like sleep apnea) can occur in extreme cases due to nasal congestion or asthma.
In other words, the body of a mold sufferer becomes a mess, and the more time a person being affected by mold spends in the bedroom trying to sleep, the sicker and the less sleep they are getting. It can be a vicious and draining cycle.
There are many mechanisms by which mold toxins interfere with the body’s ability to rest and recover, in regards to sleep signaling. Signals both external (e.g., darkness) and internal (e.g., melatonin production), that tell the body it is time to down-regulate and go to sleep. Most symptoms are not commonly associated with mold exposure, likely because each symptom involves a chain of events, making what initiated it (environmental mold) extremely difficult to pinpoint.
Here is a brief explanation of some of the things going on inside of a mold-sick body that directly affects sleep: When someone is constantly inhaling mold spores, the spores can make their way to the sphenoid sinus which sits almost adjacent to the pituitary gland. Mold toxins are fat-soluble and are able to breach the blood/brain barrier. When a person’s brain becomes mold-toxic, it can’t properly stimulate the pituitary gland. This creates hormonal deficiencies[CF1] in the thyroid, adrenals, and the sex organs. It also causes the body to slow or halt the release of growth hormone, which, among other things, exacerbates anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Chronic fatigue and lethargy are then attributed to the person’s insomnia, and sleep issues rather than the other way around.
Mold-toxic brains produce excessive amounts of glutamate and palmitoylethanolamide. Both are powerful electrifying brain chemicals that are anti-aging when at normal levels, but excessive amounts produce an over-electrified nervous system, insomnia, hair loss, and anxiety. This explains why mold-toxic patients experience a gradual progression of anxiety; they are slowly accumulating more mold toxins. In more severe cases of mold toxicity, bipolar symptoms of rage and paranoia can emerge.
Inflammation caused by mold toxicity causes the continual release of proinflammatory cytokines. In the brain, the cytokines bind to the leptin receptor, preventing its normal function in the hypothalamus. The blocked leptin receptor can no longer do its main jobs of regulating energy balance and hunger, and no longer initiates the steps that lead to the production of alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH). Reduced MSH production results in reduced production of melatonin, which results in sleep problems.
The moral of the story is, if you suddenly have trouble falling asleep, have disrupted sleep, or you just cannot sleep at all, you may want to consider what might be in the air you’re breathing because mold exposure is a possible cause. This is not to say that sleep problems are always caused by a moldy indoor environment or mycotoxins. Rather, it is just information to help you to consider at least taking mold off of the table before you begin looking to medications, either OTC or pharmaceutical, for relief.
Mycotoxins Tests: How Do I Know?
To look into mold, I recommend testing your home first. Depending on how deep you want to dive and how much you want to spend, you have quite a few options: DIY mold test plates, hiring a Building Biologist, professional environmental hygienist or inspector, or diagnostic testing, such as an Environmental Relative Moldiness Index (ERMI) or Environmental Mold and Mycotoxin Assessment (EMMA Test) — this can be done on your own or with professional guidance. Using an ERMI or an EMMA Test that actually identifies mold species gives you the added benefit of being able to cross-reference that information with any later diagnostic testing for mycotoxins that may be done on your body. For example, mold sufferer Maryam Henein found mold in her bathroom during testing that produced the mycotoxins that she also found in her body with urine screening. (Great Plains has a urine mycotoxin panel that can be ordered by your doctor to provide this information). This sort of association is undeniable and can inform treatment and detox protocols to make healing much easier.
Each testing option has its pluses and minuses, and no method is perfect, but at least it will lead you to the next steps and some concrete answers about the health of your environment.
Things to consider
Not all testing will reveal positive results, though, because spores are measured, not mycotoxins (gases), so if the mold is contained in a ceiling or wall cavity, it may not present in your results. (The EMMA Test does look for mycotoxins). For example, if molds are actively growing, but not releasing spores, you aren’t going to get much of an indicator that anything is wrong. So, if your testing looks good, but you still aren’t sleeping and feel crummy whenever you are at home, asking yourself the following questions could also help you to figure mold into the equation or exclude it completely:
- Do you have chronic sinus congestion, pain, or recurrent sinus infections?
- Do you feel better/sleep better when you are away from your home?
- Are you having trouble learning new things or recalling knowledge, for example, words, directions to a place you go frequently, people’s names?
- Do you have excessive thirst or increase urination?
- Have you taken and failed a Visual Contrast Sensitivity Test (VCS Test)?
- Do you get static shocks frequently?
- Do you have frequent headaches or ice-pick-like pain?
If you find yourself answering “Yes” to three or more of these questions, you should consider consulting with trusted professionals such as a medical, holistic, or naturopathic doctor. Mention mold symptoms and that mold exposure is a concern for you.
Sleep is incredibly important for good health of both body and mind. You cannot function properly without it, and investigating why you aren’t sleeping may unveil other, more serious health issues that you need to address.
Catherine Fruechtenicht is a freelance writer, blogger, and former magazine editor. She currently dedicates her time and resources to running her blog Mold Free Living, where she discusses practical tips for health and wellness for the growing population of people dealing with mold- or environmentally-triggered illness. Having dealt with chronic and debilitating symptoms caused by mold in her own home, she shares expert information, tips, and experiential knowledge from her and her family’s journey back to wellness on her blog to help others find hope and healing.
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