The Effects of Trauma from Chronic and Environmental Illness on the Body and Brain

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

We often think of trauma as being that of a horrific event in one’s life or, in more physical terms, a direct physical injury.  What is less discussed, however, is the trauma that often evolves from the experience of chronic illness, and for the purposes of this newsletter, dealing with the trauma of mold and mycotoxin illness.

Experiencing trauma of any kind causes a change in the neurological wiring of the brain and nervous system. (1) This is quite evident in individuals who have had direct brain trauma, such as a major head injury or a stroke, as the changes happen very quickly.  In illness-induced trauma, the neurological changes that occur are generally slower and occur over a longer period of time. According to the Epic Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advocacy, support, and tools for those affected by chronic illness, the following behaviors can be indicative of someone struggling with the trauma associated with chronic illness:

  • – Fear of the recurrence of symptoms or fear of a lack of a cure.
  • – Hypervigilance around looking for the return of illness.
  • – Fear of getting close to or establishing connections with others.
  • – Avoidance of things often associated with illness. Examples include missing doctor’s appointments or putting off testing or surgery.

Changes in the Body Caused by Emotional Trauma

Dr. Robert Sapolsky wrote a fascinating book some years ago entitled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. The book demonstrates the chronic deterioration of brain matter in primates when they are under chronic, unpredictable, and unrelenting stress. Zebras, on the other hand, do not get ulcers because they (mostly) only release stress hormones in the event of an actual emergency. It is an interesting and somewhat humorous perspective at the way in which mismanaged or unmanaged stress can create illness and disease for us “thinking” animals.

Luckily, the body has also developed a remarkable capacity to protect itself against any onslaught by calling into action all of its systems and proclaiming, “This is war!” when we are under emotional, physical, or toxic (as in the case of mold) duress. In times of great stress, every possible natural coping mechanism becomes employed to sometimes catastrophic effect.  The immediate impacts may constitute inflammation and other reactionary markers, like hives, for example, that many of us are familiar with, but the far-reaching impacts usually involve the adrenal system, which is responsible for buffering the body against stress by the release of cortisol.  Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone and works in the brain to control moods, motivations, and feelings of fear and anxiety. Cortisol can be a wonderful signaling tool for the body to channel resources and energy to systems where they are needed most in times of stress, but when stress is unrelenting or cortisol is released in large amounts, the circulating levels of glucose and insulin in the body are impacted as well. Brain function then becomes affected by hormonal fluctuations along with the continuing inflammation.

Trauma and Mold Illness

With mold- and mycotoxin-related illness, neurologic manifestations can occur for several biochemical reasons.  Initially, the toxins themselves can create “brain fog” as well as other seemingly unrelated types of symptoms including dizziness, vertigo, headache, and diffuse numbness or tingling in any part of the body.  The longer the mold exposure goes on, the more ingrained these changes become such that these reactions and health symptoms become “normal” to the sufferer, although they are anything but that!  As more and more oxidative stress is created in the cells from the impact of the toxin exposure, the symptoms may become relentless and debilitating.

We have also discussed the direct inflammatory effects of mycotoxins of the capillaries responsible for delivering oxygen into tissues.  When these capillary beds become inflamed and spasmodic, oxygen deprivation of tissues ensues which can explain some of the neurologic components of mold-related illness.  Once these capillary beds are stimulated by the mycotoxins, it takes less and less of a “hit” of mold to create symptoms. It is no wonder, then, that some of the fears of recurrence and hypervigilance become deep-seated and justifiable fears for those chronically ill from mold. Because this is one of those “hidden illnesses” that may be poorly understood by many medical professionals and among family and friends who are not impacted, the support that these patients need may be insufficient both medically and emotionally.  This added challenge of feeling alone and misunderstood may actually make patients worse, as their coping mechanisms from all organ systems keeps sending them into a fear mode, and rightfully so.

Additionally, since trauma can come from many different sources and at different times of life,  situational and injury trauma can also make one more vulnerable to the effects of mold and other illnesses, as these neural pathways may already be fragile and subject to the impact of mold much more so than those without this setup.  This is the reason that a complete medical history taken at the onset of an office visit should take into account all previous illnesses, societal and family situations both current and past, and head injuries. Significant stress impacts need to be noted on the patient’s timeline.

Helping Yourself to Heal Both Inside and Out

Recognizing then that mold and mycotoxins can create trauma, and thus cause the vicious cycle that may put a roadblock in the healing process makes it of paramount importance to identify and understand this early on. This can avoid, or at least mitigate, the continual or recurrent downward spirals that may impact health and wellbeing.

What You Can Do:

  1. Get out of the mold! You cannot heal if surrounded by moldy air or belongings.
  2. Use oxygen therapy (discussed in previous articles) to aid in improving oxygen delivery to organs, particularly the brain, after significant mycotoxin exposure.
  3. Detoxify your body. Again, many articles about this are here and discuss the many methodologies for doing this. MycoDetox is a great nutritional supplement to help with this process as well.
  4. Heal your brain biochemically. This may involve glutathione, methylated products such as B12 and folate, and enhance blood flow with ginseng-type products and NAD (nicotinamide).  There is a prescription product, Synapsin, that I am currently investigating for this very reason. Omega 3 fish oil, such as Orthomega by OrthoMolecular and Phosphatidylcholine by PhosGold are also quite helpful in the post-inflammatory brain issues.
  5. Normalize adrenal function to decrease huge swings in cortisol. Micro Balance Adrenal Boost, for example, is a good and gentle addition to this. This may be needed long term to help maintain a good hormonal balance. CellTropin is also helpful for normalizing hormone production, stimulating circulation, and initiating cellular turnover and healing on this level as well.
  6. Use mind/body techniques for helping rewire the circuitry after post-traumatic brain events. These may include a technique called EMDR, Reiki, and hypnosis but all require expert professionals for their success.
  7. Help others with their recovery.  No one understands what you are going through like someone who has gone through a similar event  Helping others helps you. Period.
We hope this article offered insight and helpful information. Please comment below or email us at with your questions.