During my late teens and early twenties, I suffered from an unexplainable chronic illness that significantly reduced my quality of life. I eventually learned that the illness I was experiencing had been caused by two primary factors - a Lyme infection and exposure to toxic mold in a previous water-damaged apartment building I had lived in. While I tried many different medications, supplements, and treatments for these illnesses, there is one therapy in particular that I found to be unexpectedly helpful - sunbathing! Read on to learn why sun exposure is beneficial for combating fungal infections, and get the details on the sunbathing protocol I have been using to recover from mold illness.
What is mold illness?
Mold illness is provoked by exposure to toxic molds, typically in water-damaged indoor environments. This type of environment is very hospitable to mold spores. Upon taking up residence and propagating in water-damaged areas, molds begin to produce insidious substances called mycotoxins and noxious gases called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). People living in water-damaged, moldy environments are at risk for developing systemic fungal infections due to the inhalation and ingestion of mold spores, as well as a wide variety of other symptoms caused exposure to the products of mold, mycotoxins and VOCs. Exposure to mold, mycotoxins, and fungal VOCs is a grossly misunderstood and overlooked cause of chronic illness. These toxic exposures can cause immune dysfunction, chronic inflammation, allergies and asthma, gastrointestinal disorders, cognitive issues, and neurological symptoms.
At the beginning of my journey in recovering from mold illness, I was very focused on taking binders (such as charcoal and bentonite clay) and natural antifungals, which are commonly recommended for the treatment of mold illness. However, I wasn’t making any progress with my recovery. Finally, I made a significant life change and moved from the Midwest out to Colorado. Once I was in Colorado, I began to spend a lot of time outside, exposed to the sun. Over the course of a couple months, my health has drastically improved. While the dry environment in Colorado has helped me feel better, mold still exists here (to a degree) both indoors and out. Nonetheless, my health has continued to improve. This observation convinced me that the increased sun exposure I’ve been receiving is responsible for the strides I am making in my recovery from mold illness.
Using sunlight to combat mold
Mold loves the dark. Research indicates that fungi, such as mold, can sense darkness in their animal host, activating virulence factors that enable the fungal pathogen to colonize the host. (1) Based on this information, it makes sense that flooding the body with light could be beneficial for combatting fungal infection associated with mold illness. Indeed, a growing body of research indicates that the therapeutic use of light is effective in the treatment of fungal infection. Exposing microbes, including fungi, to different light wavelengths can inactivate the microbes. In my experience, sunlight also expedites mold illness recovery through two other mechanisms - the synchronization of circadian rhythms and vitamin D production.
Blue light is antifungal.
Blue light (wavelength 400–470 nm) has demonstrated antifungal activity against Candida albicans, Fusarium, Rhizopus microsporus, Scedosporium apriospermum, and Mucor circinelloides, all of which are associated with opportunistic, invasive fungal infections. (2)(3) The mechanism by which blue light inhibits germination and proliferation of fungi can be attributed to its photoexcitation of endogenous porphyrins (metal-containing molecules that absorb light) within fungal cells. The absorption of light by porphyrins causes the endogenous production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the fungal cells, which promotes cell death. While blue light is effective at killing pathogenic organisms that infect humans, excessive blue light exposure also has harmful effects on the human body. Humans are evolutionarily designed to receive blue light exposure naturally from the sun during daylight hours, but this exposure is meant to taper down as the day progresses. However, in our technology-driven modern world, most of us receive blue light exposure around the clock from our electronic devices and artificial lights. Abundant research has demonstrated that excessive blue light exposure is detrimental to health. This is where it became apparent to me that sunlight is the ultimate antifungal light source. Sunlight contains blue light, but it is balanced with the entire spectrum of other light colors – violet, green, yellow, orange, and red – thus preventing “blue light overload.” In addition, as I will mention next, using sunlight as an antifungal light source (rather than an artificial blue light device) allows you to keep your circadian rhythms synchronized, and promotes vitamin D production in your skin. In my experience, these factors also promote recovery from mold illness.
UVB light increases melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH)
Melanocyte-stimulating hormone is a hormone with important anti-inflammatory and hormonal functions. MSH tends to be low in people with mold illness, contributing to chronic fatigue, pain, hormonal imbalances, and decreased immunity. (4) However, you can raise your MSH naturally by getting sunlight exposure! UVB light, the same wavelength of light responsible for initiating vitamin D production in the skin, also stimulates the body to increase MSH levels. (5) However, research indicates that UVB light must hit the eye in order to stimulate MSH production - this means you need to take off those sunglasses when you are outdoors in order to reap the MSH-raising benefits of sunlight. I personally avoid wearing sunglasses outdoors, and actually notice a dip in my mood and general sense of wellbeing when I do slip them on!
Sun exposure normalizes circadian rhythms to enhance immunity and detoxification.
Disrupted circadian rhythms are associated with lowered immunity. (6) Decreased immune function will impair your body’s ability to eliminate fungal infections. Circadian rhythms also regulate liver function and the body’s detoxification processes; (7) I suspect that a disrupted circadian rhythm may therefore impede the body’s ability to detox mycotoxins. Sunlight is a primary cue for the synchronization of circadian rhythms. Via the retino-hypothalamic tract, light signals are sent to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the brain, which is the master regulator of the body’s circadian rhythms. Sunlight thus helps to “wind” the circadian clock so that it functions normally. By exposing the body to sunlight during the day, and avoiding blue light and artificial light exposure at night, circadian rhythms can be normalized and immunity and detoxification optimized.
Vitamin D is immune-boosting and antifungal.
Sun exposure on the skin initiates the production of vitamin D. Vitamin D plays many significant roles in human physiology, including regulating immunity and acting as an antifungal. (8) I never responded well to oral vitamin D3 supplements; for some reason, they always made me feel quite ill. However, I have responded excellently to increased sun exposure, the body's intended way of producing significant quantities of vitamin D. However, I think it is possible for some people to experience adverse reactions to sun exposure initially, if they are used to living a life primarily indoors, under artificial lights and out of the sun. In this case, the use of sunlight for boosting vitamin D production should be introduced gradually. See my sunbathing protocol below for more details.
My sunbathing protocol
This is the sunbathing protocol I have been following this summer since I moved to Colorado. Note that this protocol is affected by the altitude of the area in which I live (5,420 ft) and the latitude (39.9°N. At higher altitudes, the atmosphere is thinner and filters less UV radiation; this means that more UV light is available to interact with the skin. (9) Other factors that affect UV levels include variations in sun height, which are affected by the time of day and season, latitude, cloud cover, the presence of ozone in the atmosphere, and ground reflection, which is affected by factors such as snow and sand.
- Approximately five days a week, I go outside on a walk with as much skin exposed as possible anytime between 10 am and 2 pm. This time frame is centered around solar noon, at least for the summer months. This summer, I have also enjoyed laying out on a deck chair in a swimsuit, to maximize the surface area of skin available for receiving sun exposure.
- When I see my skin start to get lightly pink, I either put on a cotton long-sleeved shirt (cotton acts as SPF 15) and a hat to protect my skin, or finish my walk and retreat indoors. While sun exposure is healthy, sunburn is not, and should be avoided. Personally, I can stay outside in the sun now for at least 90 minutes before I experience light pinkening of my skin. Some people who are used to living a life indoors under artificial lights, out of the sun, may only be able to handle somewhere around 20 minutes of direct sun exposure initially. However, as you re-acclimate your skin to regular sun exposure, it is likely that your skin will be less likely to burn.
- I consume an anti-inflammatory, paleo diet. For me, diet has been key for increasing the resilience of my skin to sun exposure. Since upgrading my diet, I no longer experience sunburn, despite spending time outside in the sun every day of the week in the summer months. Read my previous blog post, Nutrition for Sun Protection, for more information on dietary modifications that can increase your skin’s resilience to sun exposure.
- This winter, I intend to maintain a healthy serum vitamin D level by using a vitamin D lamp. I have written several times about the vitamin D lamp I use – it was also influential in my recovery from a long-term dental infection. You can find the lamp I use on Amazon via the link below.
Sunlight has quickly become the most important part of my recovery from mold illness. While I am doing several other treatments in conjunction with sunbathing, including using charcoal and clay as binders for mycotoxins and taking colostrum as a natural antifungal agent, I know from two years of experience that these additional treatments are not effective in the absence of sun exposure.