Cell Membrane Dysfunction in Toxicity-Related Health Conditions

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

As we delve a little deeper into recovering from mold-related illness and other toxin-related conditions,  the subject of the cell membrane must be addressed.  Every cell and there are trillions in every human body, has a membrane responsible for a whole list of functions.  Back in early biology, we learned that one of the differences between plant and animal cells is the cell wall (plants) vs. the cell membrane (animals).  The cell wall is a rigid structure that protects the interior of the cell.  The cell membrane, on the other hand, is fluid, I think of it as “gelatinous” but even that is a tremendous oversimplification.  While the membrane provides some separation of one cell to the next, it is not quite as structural as it sounds and acts more as a bridge of communication from cell to cell.

Why is Cell Membrane Health Important?

Understanding the huge impact the cell membrane has on your body is necessary if you want to understand health and healing.  First, the cell membrane is composed of a supple phospholipid bi-layer, much like the brain.  Every part of the membrane is constantly active in regulating body function for energy, for fluid regulation, and most notably, for proper neurologic and brain function.  Exposure to mold/mycotoxins or other toxins causes a disruption in this electrical communication and signaling resulting in the presentation of many symptoms, some of which may progress to present as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), cancer, and many others.  In many mold toxicity cases, it is this cell membrane dysfunction that can cause severe brain fog, headaches, and general lethargy that many patients may experience.

NeuroLipid Research

Back in 2004, I began studying the work of Patricia Kane, Ph.D., and her work in NeuroLipid Research.  Her research in the field of cell membrane dysfunction is unparalleled in its revelation of the associated disorders.   While some cell membrane disorders are caused by genetics entirely and present at birth (for example, Neimann-Pick Disease, a rare progressive genetic disorder characterized by an inability of the body to transport cholesterol and other fatty substances inside of cells leading to an accumulation of these substances within various tissues of the body, including brain tissue), most are caused by our environments with some people being more susceptible than others.  Dr. Kane claims that virtually all cell membrane-centered disorders may be improved by proper stabilization of the membrane. The immense importance of the cell membrane becomes even more clear when we realize that all thought and movement activity involves neuronal membranes to carry the signals required to blink an eye, to move a finger, or to transmit a thought.  In fact, all individuals struggling with emotional instability have an extremely low total lipid content within the cell membrane, which can be attended to with a highly-TARGETED lipid diet and support of lipid digestion. We will get into that more later, though.

What happens to the Cell Membrane When it is Impacted by Toxins?

Explaining this can dig very deeply into cell biology and biochemistry, which for those so inclined is outlined in much of Dr. Kane’s work (and others), but, for the purposes of this article, I will oversimplify a bit to get the point across. In healthy individuals, the phospholipid layer of the membrane allows nutrients to flow inside the cell easily and toxins and free radicals to leave unimpeded. When our bodies are exposed to toxins, the fluid membrane of the cell becomes “stiffer” and less able to transmit its electrical charges to other cells; therefore, the communication across nerves becomes very disrupted. If inflamed, nothing can come in or out through the cell membrane, so the cell becomes more and more toxic, and illness results.

An analogy to illustrate the impact of toxins on cells that I like that I give to patients is to tell them to picture Jell-O and the way that it shimmies and jiggles quite fluidly. Then, I tell them to picture the Jell-O with a lot of small pieces of fruit added to it.  The more fruit that is added, the stiffer and harder the Jell-O becomes, and it doesn’t shimmy as well. Our job is to remove the fruit bits (or toxins) from the Jell-O to allow it to regain its normal movement and fluidity.  Obviously, in the real cell membrane, these “fruit bits” are oxidative damage that changes the architecture of the cell membrane.  Not only is the electrical communication between cells disrupted when toxins invade, but the mitochondria, the energy centers, become unable to do their jobs as well.

Mycotoxins, heavy metals, chemicals, and viral inflammatory byproducts may all be part of these disruptors.  As with all that we have discussed in previous articles, we start the process of getting better by reducing the total body load.  Again, and I repeat, if we try to improve the health and still have the same dirty air, or processed food, or other toxins coming in, we get nowhere fast. You must eliminate the cell membrane disruptors FIRST to then stabilize and add things to heal the cells.

How Do We Know if Cell Membrane Dysfunction Should Be Addressed?

There are extremely sophisticated tests available that show massive fatty acid disruption, hence cell membrane dysfunction, but these are both expensive and quite difficult to interpret. Personally, I believe that most people with significant disease have membrane problems, and the big question is how and when to implement treatment for this.

As a practitioner, I have found that addressing cell membrane dysfunction is best done after correcting the environment and the basics of digestion and liver support for toxin removal.  There are other physicians who would argue that the membrane should be addressed first, but this is where the art, and not just the science of medicine comes in.  A case by case method is best.

Treatment for Fostering Cell Membrane Health

The replacement of the phospholipids that comprise the membrane is the mainstay of treatment.  The use of Phosphatidylcholine is the cornerstone of the plan, although there are several other steps.  Phosphatidylcholine, which I will abbreviate as PTC henceforth, is available both in oral and intravenous formulations, and I have found that both are helpful.   Again, overly simplistic, but giving phosphatidylcholine helps to restore the normal function of the membrane, along with glutathione to help remove the “bits” that are then dislodged out of the body.  In extremely ill patients, we try to administer the IV PTC formulation at least twice weekly initially while giving the oral form on non-IV days. What happens after a period of weeks, sometimes even days, is the stabilization of the cell membrane and its function. (Note: There are phosphatidylcholine supplements available online through the Wellevate portal.  While none are harmful, to be used optimally, it does require timing, dosing, and support of other functions simultaneously.  To simply start these without following other rules of  reducing body load will not yield the results we all want.)

Diet is also extremely important.   A modified ketogenic diet plays a large role in healing and improvement.  This diet should be adhered to for an indefinite period, and more information about it may be found on Dr. Patricia Kane’s website.  There are certain foods that she feels should be avoided, especially trans fats, as these act as a plastic of sorts in the cells.  She includes much to my personal chagrin, peanut butter, and peanut oil in these fats to avoid, although they are not strictly trans fats, along with canola oil and mustard.  Alternatively, she advocates for sunflower oil and sunflower seeds in the diet, as well as linoleic acid, to help in the restoration of cell membrane function. Dr. Kane also believes that too much fish oil may be detrimental in that it competitively inhibits the expression of other fats.  Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are helpful and necessary, and Dr. Kane emphasizes that balance is extremely important.

Enhancing lipid digestion using digestive enzymes containing lipase and utilizing butyrate to help with fatty-acid processing may be helpful as well. With both, it all becomes an effort of helping get these fatty acids to the area they belong—the cell membrane.

Another part of this therapy is the correct use of minerals.  All minerals have an electrical charge as well. In an environment of healthy cell membranes and phospholipids, minerals are easily used and absorbed, but in a toxic environment, our cells can become mineral depleted and vulnerable. In other words, one cannot exist and function well without the other.  Thus, it is imperative to properly supplement needed minerals along with the correct lipids to truly correct the conditions we face.

Cell Membrane Function and Health

I have only grazed the surface of the importance of cell membrane function in health and disease, as this topic is extremely complex. And, while we often think of the use of phospholipids for cell membrane health more with neurological issues—for example, DHA supplementation is often prescribed for pregnant women to promote fetal brain and eye development–when there is membrane dysfunction, it truly impacts the body as a whole. In other words, when the cell membranes are compromised, the whole body is impacted. My hope is that this article gives you more food for thought in how to correct and maintain your health, especially as it pertains to mold toxicity, the genesis of this newsletter.

To summarize, get rid of the mold, eat the proper diet, and then use appropriate tools to fill in nutritional gaps.  Then, and only then, should you focus on the particularly important piece of healing and maintaining the cell membrane.

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