Chronic illnesses, such as Lyme disease and mold illness, often lead to concomitant struggles with mental health. A significant proportion of the mental health struggles chronic illness sufferers face is due to the fact that their lives have been turned upside-down by illness. The life changes induced by illness can be emotionally harrowing. However, chronic illness can also affect mental health in a physiological way. I believe that mold illness has an especially strong relationship with mental illness, due to the profound effects mycotoxins have on the brain.
What Are Mycotoxins?
Mycotoxins are compounds produced by microfungi that 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:
Short Attention Span
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, the 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 have a history of living in moldy college dorm rooms, attending a moldy college, and living in a moldy apartment, so I am very sensitive to mold. I have found that taking binders such as bentonite clay, activated charcoal, chlorella, and Saccharomyces boulardii significantly reduces my anxiety if I am exposed to mold. Long-term supplementation with these binders has also improved my mental outlook and helped reverse the depression I experienced as a result of living and attending school in moldy buildings.
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.
Lindsay Christensen is a health writer and researcher with her B.S. in Biomedical Science and an Emphasis in Nutrition. She is currently pursuing her M.S. in Human Nutrition, with the intention of becoming a Clinical Nutritionist. Lindsay’s passion for natural health and wellness has been driven by her own experience in recovering from a serious chronic illness. She blogs about chronic illness recovery and her nature-inspired approach to nutrition and healthy living on her website, Ascent to Health: https://www.ascent2health.com/. In her free time, she can be found outdoors rock climbing and hiking, enjoying the beauty and healing power of nature.