Mental Illness, Mood Disorders, Mold, and Other Toxins

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

A few weeks ago, we wrote about trauma and how it affects the brain and central nervous system, with the definition of trauma including the physical and emotional impacts of toxic exposures on the body, specifically mold and mycotoxin exposure.  In this article, we will dig a little deeper into the biochemical impacts on the brain and nervous system from toxins which may set the stage for the subsequent biological effects that produce the trauma response.

The Role of Toxins in Inflammation and Mental Health

First, it is important to remember that toxins of any sort set off inflammation.  In the instances of mold- and mycotoxin-related illness, one measurement I use for inflammation is the lab test Transforming Growth Factor (TGF) Beta 1.  When TGF Beta 1 is elevated (above 2,000), there is evidence of inflammation that can impact patients in very individual ways but often will be in the form of neurological or neuropsychiatric symptoms, including mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. However, because toxins have such diffuse and multiple targets, it can be difficult to identify these neurological and psychological symptoms as toxicity.  One can look at the following cascade of events in the body as an illustration of why making the toxin-neurological symptom connection is so difficult:

Toxins (including mycotoxins from mold) inhibit thyroid function and alter hormone expression—which leads to mitochondrial dysfunction (impairment of the energy-producing centers of cells)—which leads to oxidative stress (when the production and accumulation of reactive oxygen species in cells and tissues outdo the ability of the body to detoxify these reactive products)—which leads to an increase in glutamate (an amino acid that can affect neurotransmitters) and excitotoxicity—which causes more inflammation and possible autoimmunity—which then interferes with neurotransmitter function.

Toxins also often act in synergy; that is to say, if one has had mold exposure and layered upon it, exposure to other toxins, such as pesticides, chemicals, etc., then all of the toxins contribute to this inflammatory cascade. When symptoms occur all at once or in quick succession, it becomes harder and harder to pinpoint causation and more important for the patient to remove all toxic exposures in order to heal. Further, mold and mycotoxins, and other environmental toxicants have been implicated in a host of disruptions to the activities of immune cell functions which can result in poorer protection from disease and even the development of autoimmune conditions and cancers while enhancing the development of delayed types of hypersensitivity reactions.  This makes a cause and effect type of relationship between diseases and causes harder to pin down.

Inflammation and Mental Health

There are many pathways in which inflammation can lead to altered mental health, and most are far beyond the scope of this article to describe.  Suffice it to say, however, that when certain inflammatory parts of the immune system become activated, the results are similar to what happens when you become acutely ill with an infection like the flu or strep throat; symptoms, like fatigue, brain fog, irritability, and cognitive changes occur. In fact, there have been studies performed in which individuals were injected with cytokines produced by activated macrophages which then induced alteration in the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal axis), and depression subsequently presented. Both are results of cortisol activation and the change in how the amino acid tryptophan is able to convert to serotonin. Plus there is an increase in quinolinic acid that disrupts the blood-brain barrier and promotes neural inflammation. Thus, it has been established that pro-inflammatory cytokines circulating in the body (like what happens with the chronic inflammation induced by mold exposure) induce not only symptoms of sickness, but also true major depressive disorders in physically ill patients with no previous history of mental disorders. These are metabolic changes that we often see on the Organic Acids test in patients with toxin exposures.

When Mitochondria Lose Their Spark

In previous articles, we have discussed mitochondria, which are the energy-generating parts of every cell in the body.  When these are impacted by toxins, the total body response can be widespread. In fact, mitochondria change shape and function according to their environment; the result is that the normal physiology of the body is altered and sometimes with lasting consequences.  For example, when physiological changes are persistent, delayed healing occurs, as well as altered energy metabolism which then can lead to obesity, fatigue, depression, and other chronic diseases. There was even a study on teachers all experiencing chronic fatigue syndrome who worked in the same water-damaged school building. The ongoing mold exposure was the common thread in the fatigue “outbreak”.  Additionally, exposure to mold or any other toxins during pregnancy can even lead to lower birth weight babies and developmental differences as a child grows.

Diagnosing Mental and Mood Disorders

Diagnosis of these exposure-driven mood disorders can be tricky and in our current health care system of “move them through quickly” as well as protocol-based medicine, it leaves little time in traditional settings to really get to the root cause of problems.  Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications absolutely have their place in treatment, but should be used simultaneously with testing that is looking for the cause. Then, not only is there better treatment of the neuropsychiatric condition, but also active prevention of other coexisting disorders.

In my professional opinion, nothing takes the place of taking a good and thorough patient history.  Investigation into living space, use of certain products (scented indoor products, phthalates, etc.), and questions about outdoor surroundings (and whether or not pesticides and herbicides are used) need to be included in the evaluation.  There are also certain routine lab tests that, when interpreted critically, can give some indication of environmental impacts and mitochondrial dysfunction, such as a low creatinine, a high alanine/lysine ratio, low carnitine levels, and low or high GGT levels for glutathione.  Specialty tests, such as the Organic Acids test or urine assays for chemicals and mycotoxins are very helpful to me in looking at the impact of toxins on a patient’s biochemistry.

Once We Know, Then What Do We Do?

Aha!  We are back to our adage we repeat in every article here– clean air, clean food,  and clean water. It is critical to clean up your external environment and stop intoxicating your body with exposures from the air, food, and water as much as possible. No other interventions will work if you are still living in the midst of continuing toxicity. Some helpful and immediate interventions include the following:

  • Using air purifiers and water filters specific to the issues found;
  • Eating organic foods to help reduce the ingestion of chemicals;
  • Choosing fish that are smaller and lower on the toxin scale;
  • Keeping personal care products as pure and as low as possible on the scale of chemical additives.  (Websites that are helpful for giving more information on specific products are and

Simply cleaning up your living environment and addressing toxicity in the body by addressing your detox pathways can improve mental health significantly. While each patient is different, and we do take genetic individuality into the equation with each, we generally do recommend liver support and detoxifiers such as Micro Balance MycoDetox Liver Support and L- Glutathione for almost everyone.  Both products help restore pathways responsible for removing toxins from the body through the liver.   Glutathione also provides needed antioxidant support to the mitochondria.  Binders such as GI Detox can then be used to help bind up the released toxins once the liver has done its job.  Sweating regularly is also important, in any way you can accomplish it.  While using a sauna is ideal for many, whatever gets the skin and body to release toxins out of the skin does help reduce the total body load.

Do these methods take the place of medications for depression and anxiety?  Not always. We do NOT encourage any patient to stop medications without the support of their healthcare professional, even when something like mold may seem to be the underlying cause of the neurological symptoms. It is important to understand that you never need to take on more than your mind or body can handle. Chronic illness of any kind and from any cause is stressful and debilitating for the sufferer and is not something that you should try to muscle through without tools and/or medical interventions if needed. Everyone is individual, and the causes and reasons for any illness are generally a combination of many things.  What I hope to have presented here is the role that toxicity can play, and how far-reaching it can be in the impacts of the neuropsychiatric systems and mental stability.

Questions? Comments? Write to us below or email us at