Breaking the Mold – My College Health Journey, Part 4
In Part 3, I went over how I discovered mold in my home environment as the cause of years of severe health decline. In part 4, I will go over my first several months out of the moldy environment and the steps I took to begin my healing, balancing my health with my life responsibilities.
During this time, I faced two major tasks:
- Heal my body from years of mold exposure and prevent further damage
- Study for and take the MCAT, the infamously difficult 7.5 hour American medical school entrance exam
Each of these on their own seemed daunting enough. To accomplish both of these simultaneously, seemed almost impossible. It was a long journey, but I managed to both heal significantly and do well on my exam. If you’re suffering from persistent health problems or chronic illness, I hope my story shows that these don’t have to stop you from accomplishing great things and pursuing your dreams.
Year 3, Semester 1 continued
After finding a new mold-free Houston apartment in November, I instantly felt better, especially during finals season when I no longer had to attend class daily. However, I didn’t stay there for long after moving in because the semester ended.
Even though the Houston apartment was good, mold exposures from classrooms and public buildings were probably keeping me down. Once again, I felt better upon returning to New Jersey.
Yet this time, my relief was short-lived.
After several days, massive fatigue began setting in, worse than anything in recent memory. Even at my sickest I’d always been active. Yet now I could barely peel myself off the couch.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was going through a period of “toxin dumping”. In a cruel twist of fate, mold toxins actually work to shut down the body’s detoxification systems. Thus, people living in moldy environments do not eliminate toxins well, leading to massive accumulation. Once in a good location without problematic mold toxins, the pathways of detox open back up. As a result, the body starts clearing out massive amounts of toxins. These toxins are pushed out into the blood. The organs of detoxification like the liver can handle some, but not all of them, so there may be recurrence of symptoms such as fatigue or waking up to pee at night.
This dumping phenomenon is almost universal for people affected by toxic mold. They feel better at first once in a good location, then feel worse as accumulated toxins begin coming out. Eventually, once the toxic load has decreased, people start feeling much better again.
While my energy was still low, other symptoms such as cognitive function and sleep quality were already improving during toxin dumping. After around a month of dumping, my energy started to improve. I found it helpful to take detox-supporting supplements (such as glutathione) before bed. Cholestyramine, a prescription drug that binds mold toxins, was another incredibly helpful therapy. If I had known about it at the time, the Direct Elimination Method would have made this dumping period much less painful.
Year 3, Semester 2
The Crossroads of Destiny
I rang in 2018 with much optimism. I thought that the new spring semester would be easier, now that I wasn’t living in a moldy house. But things weren’t easier. Even though my health was the best it had been in a while, I still dealt with many problems. My energy was not great, and sometimes would randomly crash. Though my brain worked better, my focus was still poor and my mind lacked stamina. My body still felt incredibly toxic from years of living in moldy buildings in polluted Houston, sluggish and dragging through the days. I still struggled greatly with anxiety and self doubt.
Despite all my lingering symptoms, life still went on.
I faced an imposing task. I had to study for the MCAT, the infamously difficult 7.5 hour long medical school entrance exam. I’d tried studying for this in 2017 for a January 2018 test date. But I was too sick and busy dealing with the mold problem to get far. I rescheduled for an April 2018 test date. Yet there I was in late January, having barely made any progress. I consistently scored low on practice tests. The 505 scores I was getting corresponded 66th percentile, which just wasn’t going to cut it in a competitive admissions process.
The MCAT is difficult enough for those who haven’t just had their brain damaged by years of neurotoxin inhalation. How could I hope to prepare and do well? But I’d already made it so far, staying in school when I had every right to drop out (at my worst even walking straight took effort). The goal I’d been working towards for years – getting into medical school – hung on the line. I wasn’t going to lose momentum now. If I didn’t take massive action soon, all my hard work and suffering from the past few years would be for nothing.
Seeking Mental Strategies
Now that my environmental situation was stabilized, I found that returning to mindset tricks started working again. If I was going to accomplish the massive task laid out in front of me, I would need motivated mindsets to get me through the rough patches and times of low energy, just like I’d done in the past.
I also knew that if I didn’t have positive ways of looking at the world, my mind would easily fall to the despair, panic, and sadness that had plagued it for years. Like my physical symptoms, these still lingered. I often questioned if I was too sick to accomplish anything great. Many times, I felt paranoid that the world was trying to kill me.
These incessant thoughts drove me to seek guidance from others. Just a couple of years ago I never would have thought myself as someone needing mental health support, but now making an appointment at my university’s counseling and wellbeing center seemed a natural thing to do. My counselor, though she had never heard of mold illness, was incredibly supportive and empathetic. From what I’d told her, my counselor knew that very few people recovered well from mold illness. I despaired about lacking hope for my own recovery, when it seemed like everyone who got sick from mold exposure stayed deeply sick for years and never regained good health. She gave me advice that has stuck with me ever since:
“Find the people who have recovered from the problems you are facing. They may be rare, but they exist. Find out what they did to recover, and take inspiration from that”.
Another great piece of advice came from Tom Bilyeau via his Impact Theory YouTube channel. Tom is a highly successful entrepreneur who came from humble beginnings, who has shifted his focus towards impacting people via sharing about uplifting mindsets.
Back then, he regularly did question and answer sessions. One question struck me. It came from someone recovering from chronic illness and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Their health was still suffering and doctors weren’t providing much help. They felt hopeless that their brain would never recover, and that they didn’t have the functioning to find ways to improve their own health when doctors had few answers.
Tom’s advice came down to two points:
- Embrace a growth mindset. Accept that you may not be functional, capable, or good at something now. Don’t take pride in already being good. Instead, pride yourself in your willingness and ability to grow, learn, and take on and overcome new challenges, to find ways to better your skills and life.
- Take your chances when you can get them. Tom said if he was in that situation, even if his brain was only clear for 30 minutes a day, he would fiercely grab that opportunity to research more about his condition and find information to improve his health
This advice really resonated with me. My brain had suffered much damage from years of mold exposure. In a lot of ways, it did feel like a traumatic brain injury. I was a lot less capable at many things compared to before college. But I accepted this, and took pride in my willingness to learn, grow, and recover. And I realized that even though my energy was not great, I did have moments of clear-headedness I could take advantage of. By prioritizing research on how to improve my health, those moments of good mental function would only increase, helping me even more.
The Game Plan
My counselor was right. There were rare cases of people who did make full recoveries from mold illness. The primary example that came to mind was Dave Asprey, of Bulletproof. He’d been mold-exposed for years during his childhood and young adulthood. Yet he managed to take his health back, have a highly successful career, and run a large health company. If Dave could find a way out of mold toxicity, so could I. I started reading the Bulletproof blog and listening to the Bulletproof Radio podcast in my free time. These further directed me to other useful information sources.
I spent a massive amount of time researching health. I probably spent more time on this, than I actually did on my classwork and MCAT studying! My old self, the type A overachiever student, would be horrified I was spending so much time away from studying when I had such an important exam coming up. The new me realized that working towards improving my health and energy levels, was the ultimate productivity hack. I wasn’t going to continue being successful and achieving great things by letting my body run itself into the ground.
From the information I took in, I came up with the following broad strategy. This guided what therapies I pursued and how I went about my life.
- Remove things that drain my energy
- Add in things that boost my energy
To implement this strategy, I heavily researched various health subjects, as well as took careful notes of my symptoms and functioning from day to day, correlating these to various dietary or environmental triggers.
Heating Things Up
My initial efforts went towards step 1 – removing things that drain my energy. The most obvious target was the years of mold toxins accumulated in my body. Generally, people who get severely ill from mold exposures have a tougher time eliminating mold and other toxins. These toxins stay in the body’s cells and tissues, causing lingering symptoms such as fatigue and poor cognitive function.
I heard a Bulletproof Radio podcast mentioning the use of infrared (IR) saunas in detoxification. Sweating out toxins eliminates them without the need for the liver and kidneys to work as hard as they normally would. IR sauna seemed like the perfect way to push mold toxins out of my body and improve my health. With my family’s support, I ordered one to my apartment in Houston.
My sleep following my first infrared sauna session was the deepest I had experienced since starting college. It was truly miraculous. I wasn’t waking up exhausted any more. I actually had energy in the mornings! This gave me good leverage to research further ways to improve my health and tackle my academic demands.
IR sauna ended up being my highest yield biohack during this period. I used the sauna every night without fail for at least 1 hour.
You are what you eat
Next, I turned my attention to foods. From my experience getting very healthy before college, I knew how food could have an immense impact on energy, either positive or negative.
I noticed that I would often, but not always, feel tired after eating. This had began during my time living in the moldy condo, but was not resolving much. I figured, if I’m no longer living in a moldy building, then maybe something about the foods was causing fatigue. Additionally, since it didn’t happen all the time, then certain foods could be more problematic.
After careful observation and correlation, I noticed my body was reacting to foods with certain characteristics – mycotoxin contamination, high histamines, and high oxalate content. I also noticed some new intolerances to foods, namely dairy and eggs. Later testing revealed I’d developed new allergies to these. Due to my history of thyroid antibodies, I switched to an Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet to eliminate the most common autoimmune-triggering foods. I will discuss the science of these problematic foods in future articles. But for now, I will vouch that eliminating these foods meant I was finally not exhausted after eating. I used to spent an hour or several hour after meals laid out, unable to focus. By avoiding energy-draining foods, I gained hours of productive time each day.
Mold Sensing Superpowers
Now that the previous steps increased my baseline energy, dips in functioning became much more noticeable. Sometimes, I’d suddenly feel exhausted, dumb, or anxious out of the blue. I began noticing this often happened after going out to buildings in public. Were these buildings moldy?
When one is still mold toxic, it is difficult to notice a change in feeling when entering a moldy building because the body is used to feeling inflamed. After time away from mold and clearing out mycotoxins, the body develops a much clearer sense for when it’s being re-exposed to mold. Re-exposures trigger an immune response that causes relapse of symptoms like heart rate elevation, breathing suppression, fatigue, and brain fog. This phenomenon is termed unmasking. Regular re-exposures can prevent healing and even lead to further health decline!
So far, I was able to pick out a few obviously bad buildings on campus, such as the library (thousands of old paper books and visible water damage on the ceiling). These buildings caused me a reaction within seconds of entering. But until now, not many buildings led to a noticeable acute reaction.
After realizing my energy dipped after going to public buildings, I started paying closer attention to my symptoms upon entering buildings.
Oftentimes I’d feel anxious or dumb in a store, then look up to find black dots of mold on the AC vents! I started taking notes of how I felt when I was in buildings and after I left them. Sometimes the buildings that made me feel bad had visible mold. Other times, they did not. But visible mold or not, the symptoms and reactions were similar. I’d go into a building and my brain would get slower, and my body would get exhausted. My breathing automatically became more shallow. My heart rate would speed up or become irregular. I made a careful point to record and avoid the buildings that caused me reactions.
But I soon ran into a problem.
Many of my classrooms were turning out to be moldy! I tried to deny it for months. I didn’t want the mental burden of realizing I was re-entering moldy buildings most of the week. But as the semester went on, I could no longer ignore that these classrooms were damaging my health. On the days I attended class in these buildings, I was absolutely gutted. On the days I didn’t, my mind was clearer and my body more energetic.
Unfortunately, my school was slow to act on this problem. Their standards for mold testing and remediation were not at all suitable for someone with CIRS like me. The rooms still caused me symptoms after ‘remediation’ that did not address lingering toxins or mold growing in AC systems.
The best I could do was wear an N99 mask to those classes. This helped, but I still had symptoms. The mask did not give a perfect seal, and some mold toxins are small enough to be absorbed through pores in the skin. I made sure to shower and wash my clothes as soon as I got back to my apartment. Still, it was a miserable experience. As the months went on I felt these moldy classrooms affecting me more and more.
With chronic illness, it can be hard to balance health needs with life responsibilities.
I felt so conflicted. If I skipped class, I would preserve my health but do poorly with school, hurting my future goal of getting into medical school. If I went to class, I’d get the grades I needed, but not without much suffering. Ultimately, I did tough out the mold re-exposures for these months. But I learned that all the binders and biohacks I could dream of still couldn’t compensate for being regularly re-exposed to toxic buildings. After I realized which classrooms were moldy, I felt like a soldier going off to die in battle before going to those classes. It felt so helpless and depressing, to constantly be re-exposed and watch my hard-earned health progress deteriorate.
I made a promise to myself: I would never “tough out” regular exposures to moldy buildings for school or work, ever again. Nothing is worth more than health. I decided that if I could not find a way out of going to class in moldy buildings for the next school year, I would drop out or transfer.
Let there be light (at the right times)
The final big energy drain I uncovered was improper light exposures. First, was the morning light coming into my bedroom. My bedroom window was perfectly blacked out. Yet the morning sunlight coming in through the cracks between the door and the doorframe was enough for me to wake up earlier than I wanted to, meaning I woke up unrested. Frustration with early awakening led me to develop The Better Blackout Method (instructional article coming soon), in which I used insulation foam between the door and doorframe to block this morning light. The Better Blackout Method changed my life – my sleep became better than I could have ever imagined!
I also noticed that overly bright lights heavy in blue colors made my eyes tired and caused overall fatigue. These symptoms were especially obvious after going to class, staring at bright projector screens in rooms with harsh white fluorescent or LED lights. This realization led me to implement blue-light blocking methods such as daytime and night-time blue-light blocking glasses and installing Iris on my laptop. These methods are detailed in the free ebook you’ll receive if you sign up for my email list (see the sidebar on the right or the bottom of this article).
I also started using red bulbs as my room lighting at night. This helped me calm down and unwind before bed, and promoted healthy melatonin production for quality sleep.
Now that I’d addressed many factors draining my energy, it was time to add interventions to boost energy. I had never been a big fan of supplements, wanting to do things the natural way. But I’d seen for myself what a big difference supplemental magnesium made for my sleep after becoming ill from mold.
Supplements are not natural, but neither is the high toxic load the modern world presents us.
As Dave Asprey says, if you want to get all your nutrients from nature, then all your toxins should only be from nature too. The modern world presents our bodies with a lot more stress than our ancestors faced, so it’s reasonable that we’ll need some extra tools to combat this.
My strategy for supplement selection was to look at what supplements other people facing similar health problems and conditions had found helpful. I gathered this through books and browsing through Facebook support groups.
In particular, I chose to focus on supplements people with hypothyroidism often found helpful. I knew my thyroid function was low from mold exposure. The thyroid plays a big role in controlling metabolism and energy, so I figured by supporting thyroid function I would increase my overall energy. I found Dr. Amy Myers’ and Izabella Wentz’s books to be very helpful. When possible, I like learning from health practitioners who have been through chronic illness themself. They understand both the physical, emotional, and spiritual struggles of being chronically sick as well as the medical knowledge for how to address these issues.
I discovered it was very important to add supplements slowly, one at a time. Sometimes I would have adverse reactions to new supplements. If I’d started multiple supplements recently, it would be harder to say precisely which one caused the reaction. I also found it very important for me to avoid supplements with ingredients derived from corn or soy, as I reacted negatively to these. Since then I have found Thorne, Douglas Laboratories, and Jarrow to be the cleanest supplement brands that I default to.
Effective supplementation was a game-changer for my energy and health.
As I started supporting my body’s organs and metabolism, things just started working better. My digestion improved, with less bloating after meals. My energy was more consistent throughout the day, rather than being depleted by the evenings as it often had been before. I was calmer and happier. My brain could better focus and had more stamina. Taking detox-supporting supplements such as glutathione before bed helped me sleep even more deeply and decreased the chance I’d need to wake up to pee at night. For the first time in a long time, I stopped seeing myself as deeply sick! I had periods of feeling ‘normal’ again.
Managing my Mind
All these therapies greatly improved my daily functioning. But I was still riddled with anxiety, between managing homework and papers for school, researching my health, and preparing for the biggest test of my life so far. The moments of panic were starting to hold back my functioning. I’d get lost in a loop of despaired thoughts, and then find half an hour had passed once I centered my mind again. If I wanted to boost my productivity, I’d need to tame my anxiety.
Around this time I started learning about heart rate variability (HRV). There’s a natural variation in the time between heartbeats. When the body is in a calm, parasympathetic state, this variation is high. When it’s in a stressed, sympathetic state, this variation is low. There are sensors and apps that track HRV, such as Heartmath. Using these, you can practice breathing and relaxation techniques to boost HRV and shift you into a calmer state. This was especially useful when I found myself starting to get anxious. I would use the breathing techniques from my HRV training sessions and bring myself back to calm, saving time lost to panicked thought loops. My baseline anxiety decreased too.
Other tools I found helpful for relaxation included the emotional freedom technique (EFT), also known as tapping. It sounds silly at first, but it worked well for me, especially when I felt paranoid about the world trying to kill me. This was a common recurring thought I dealt with, given that I’d lost so much to a silent, invisible, and pervasive environmental threat. Finally, I found that taking breaks from my study sessions to lie down on the floor, close my eyes, and listen to relaxing, calming music, was helpful for sustaining my energy.
By late April, the big day came. I flew back home to New Jersey to take the MCAT. I figured the test centers in Houston were almost certainly moldy. The day before the test I took it easy and meditated before going to bed.
After a hearty breakfast at home, I made it to the test center. Fortune smiled upon me – the building wasn’t water-damaged or moldy! But I soon ran into other problems…
Instead of paper and pen, the MCAT requires that test-takers use whiteboards and erasable markers. These are cleaned using something like Windex outside the testing room. Outside the testing room also happened to be where I had to stand for a pat-down before entering the room, where test-takers are patted down for anything that could be used to cheat. I stood outside for the pat-downs, trying to hold my breath to minimize breathing in chemical fumes.
A common result of mold exposure is the onset of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).
I was no exception – I’d developed a strong reactivity to airborne chemicals and scents. Even a single sniff could launch an inflammatory response leading to fatigue, heart palpitations, and anxiety.
Getting inside the test room didn’t offer a break from chemicals. I soon realized that the whiteboard markers were heavily scented, to the point where I was getting disoriented and sleepy. I found myself taking the test using one hand to operate the computer or write on the whiteboard, while the other held my shirt sleeve over my nose to minimize the chemicals I inhaled.
Even then, getting through the test was a massive struggle. There were points I could barely stay awake or comprehend the words on the screen. I was so worried that the unexpected environmental stressors would impair my performance. That the months of struggle and strife would have been for nothing. The following days and weeks were full of anxiety and despair.
The Moment of Truth
A month later, the big day arrived. Scores were going to be released! I went to the score report website link, uncertain what the future held. When the number flashed on the screen, I went numb with shock. I was squatting in front of my laptop, and actually fell over because my legs went soft. This is what I saw:
I was in absolute disbelief. I’d scored a 526, out of a full score of 528. This was in the 100th percentile of scores. This would be an amazing accomplishment for a normal student. For me, someone who’d just been flooded with potent neurotoxins from my living environment for years, it was beyond my wildest dreams.
I saw this as the start of a new chapter in the story of my life. No longer was I doomed to have my life pass me by, every day a reactive fight for survival. Instead, I could proactively take measures to protect and improve my health, and achieve very high goals. Yes, the world could throw great challenges at me, but I could find a way to tackle them head on. This mentality would come in handy for the hardships that would come my way in just a few months…
What helped me in early months of healing from mold toxicity:
- Low EMF Infrared sauna (Clearlight is my current favorite brand)
- Red room lighting at night-time (replace your light bulbs with red ones)
- The Better Blackout Method (bedroom blackout)
- Carefully chosen supplements
- AIP diet
- Cyclical ketosis
- Brain octane oil
- Blue-light blocking (sign up for my email list to get a free e-book detailing this)
- N99 mask for exposure to moldy buildings (a P100 respirator would also be good)
- HRV training
- EFT method
- Relaxing music
- Growth mindset
- Turning off WiFi at night when I slept
Energy draining triggers to avoid
- Moldy or water-damaged buildings
- Bright blue lights from screens or room lighting, both during day and night-time
- Foods high in mycotoxins, histamines, or oxalates
- Overcooked or burnt foods
- Supplements with ingredients derived from grains or soy
- Bulletproof Radio podcast
- Impact Theory YouTube channel
- Amy Myers’ books
- Izabella Wentz’s books
- Facebook support groups such as Mold Avoiders or Bio Hacker Tribe
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2 Replies to “Breaking the Mold – My College Health Journey, Part 4”
Andrew, I love what you have shared so far and am quite curious about the fast detox approach you have used, thanks for sharing the A&P aspects of it so far. I am also from NJ and started becoming ill in 2002 with the final crash in 2004. You have discovered so much wisdom, as I did on the journey of recovery – I am delighted that you are heading to medical school as you will be such a tremendous gift to your clients with the insights you have made. Definitely following others who have achieved recovery has been a key component for me. I also found infraslow fluctuation neurofeedback which has been amazing at resetting the ANS and brains immune system and has opened doors for me to assist others as a neurotherapist! I am looking forward to reading more as you’ve definitely touched into an area (fast enema detox) that I want to learn more about. Thank you for all you have shared!
Hello Jackie. Thank you for your comment. I’ve been very busy with med school since starting in early July but am finally getting into the groove of things. I will have more content up soon. Very cool that you are involved with neurotherapy – definitely a very important component of recovering from environmental illness