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The ancestral health movement is defined as as a comprehensive approach to health based on the diet and lifestyle factors that allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to thrive, remaining naturally fit, well, and free of chronic disease. I strive to incorporate an ancestral health perspective into both my work with clinical nutrition clients and my own life. Over the years in my work as a health writer and researcher, I’ve seen a significant rise in the number of scientific journal articles (and entire journals) seeking to analyze and understand health from an ancestral health perspective.
Recently, I came across a scientific article written from an ancestral health perspective that piqued my interest, and that I thought might interest my readers who have dealt with mold illness as well. The article, published in Frontiers in Immunology and titled An Evolutionary-Based Framework for Analyzing Mold and Dampness-Associated Symptoms in DMHS, discusses why exposure to harmful environmental molds, such as those that might be encountered in a water-damaged home, causes illness from an ancestral health perspective. I’ll then go on to explain why I believe that an ancestral health framework is the ideal approach for treating mold illness.
Mold Illness, the Immune System, and Sickness Behavior
When the human body is exposed to mold, the innate and adaptive branches of the immune system are recruited to target the threat. According to the Frontiers article, the immune response to mold illness likely originated in our ancestors as an attempt to protect the body, by launching a brigade of inflammatory cytokines and by creating a strong aversion to moldy odors, which would theoretically protect an individual from spending time in moldy environments in the future. The symptoms of mold illness, including depression, fatigue, and social withdrawal, closely resemble those of “sickness behavior,” an evolutionarily-conserved, adaptive set of behavioral and physiological changes that occur when the body is fighting an infection and that aided survival in our ancestors. However, in our modern-day world, sickness behavior is often mistaken for depression or other conditions, and not linked back to possible toxic environmental exposures. Furthermore, when the toxic environmental exposure is chronic, sickness behavior may become maladaptive.
Mold Illness: An Example of Evolutionary Mismatch
Humans have coexisted with environmental molds throughout our evolutionary history. Our bodies have natural defense systems in place for targeting and removing mold spores and mycotoxins, including the mucociliary clearance mechanism in the lungs and the innate and adaptive branches of the immune system. However, a growing body of research indicates that the molds we face today, both on crops such as cereal grains, and in water-damaged buildings, are quite unlike the ones our ancestors faced. Climate change is initiating the evolution of more virulent molds, which produce greater quantities of mycotoxins. On top of that, the buildings in which we work and live are perfect “mold incubators,” designed with poor ventilation, many opportunities for water leakage, and of porous materials that are hospitable to mold growth, such as particleboard and drywall.
Evolutionary mismatch is a concept in evolutionary biology that posits that our evolved traits, originally developed in our hunter-gatherer ancestors, are maladaptive in our modern-day environment. While not explicitly stated in the Frontiers article, it is my belief that modern-day mold illness is the result of evolutionary mismatch – our bodies are not adapted to the indoor mold and mycotoxin loads we face today in water-damaged buildings. While the inflammatory immune response launched by the human body in response to mold may have been adaptive in our ancestors, it appears to be largely maladaptive today, causing chronic inflammation. Our natural defense systems are no match for the high mold and mycotoxin loads we face today in water-damaged buildings, causing us to instead succumb to chronic mold-induced illness, unless we take steps to leave the unhealthy environment and restore our health.
Mold Hypersensitivity: An Evolutionarily-Conserved Protective Response
When we consider mold illness as an example of evolutionary mismatch, it makes sense that our responses to toxic indoor molds produce a biological response that is intended to be adaptive, yet causes serious health issues in the context of chronic exposure to modern-day virulent molds. I’ve been pondering this connection for years, so I was very excited to see the Frontiers article uphold this theory: Mold hypersensitivity is an evolutionarily-conserved response that protected the health of our ancestors when they were incidentally exposed to damp mold-filled environments. Yet, in our modern-day world, this response has largely become maladaptive because it triggers chronic inflammation that, left untreated, will deteriorate an individual’s health. However, I will argue that the strong olfactory sensitivity and aversion many mold-exposed people develop towards moldy environments remains adaptive in our modern world because it serves as an “alert signal” to your brain, helping you avoid future harmful exposures.
An Ancestral Health Approach to Recovery
In my clinical nutrition practice, I take an ancestral approach towards assisting my clients in their recovery from mold illness.
Step 1: Remove Yourself from Moldy Environments
The first step towards recovery is to remove yourself from moldy living and work environments. This is something that many people don’t want to hear, but it is absolutely essential for your recovery from mold illness. Chronic mold/mycotoxin exposure will continue to provoke the evolutionarily-conserved inflammatory pathways in your body, causing chronic inflammation and further deterioration of your health.
You will also need to consider environmental mold testing if you intend to continue living in your current home. There are many resources for environmental mold testing – I intend to address this topic in an upcoming blog post but you can also reach out to me to learn more.
Step 2: Find a Mold-Literate Healthcare Practitioner
I recommend that people with mold-illness work with a mold-literate doctor who can order labs, such as a urine mycotoxin test, and prescribe medications as necessary. In my clinical nutrition practice, I help mold illness clients with the nutritional, detoxification, and lifestyle pieces of recovery. As always, my approach is grounded in a science-based, ancestral health approach.
Step 3: Facilitate Mold and Mycotoxin Detoxification and Healing
Step 3 actually comprises many different steps, including optimizing detoxification pathways and gut health, balancing the immune system, and quenching inflammation. A whole foods-based, nutrient dense diet and lifestyle practices such as getting plenty of sun exposure, spending time in nature, using a sauna, and taking therapeutic botanicals and nutrients are examples of ancestral practices that can help in mold illness recovery. However, recovery is a highly nuanced process, so I always recommend working with a practitioner.
Are you struggling with mold-induced illness? Consider working with me! I am currently accepting new clients in my clinical nutrition practice. If you’re interested in diving deep into improving your nutrition and health by working one-on-one with me, reach out to me here to schedule your discovery call. The discovery call will allow us to meet and talk together to decide if my nutrition services are the right fit for your needs. I look forward to connecting with you!