Household Mold: How it Affects Sleep Quality

By Sheryl Grassie

Sleeping with mold can cause a number of health and breathing-related disorders that compromise quality of sleep. Mold is a common type of fungus that is preventable with a clean, low moisture environment.

Read on to learn exactly how mold can impact your sleep and how you can prevent mold in your home.

Damage caused by damp on a wall in modern house

What is Mold?

Mold is a kind of fungus that can be found inside and outside of your home. In nature, mold serves the purpose of breaking things down such as leaves, wood, and other flora turning it into compost. In your home, mold wants to do the same by attaching to surfaces like wood, sheetrock, and other slightly porous surfaces and trying to break them down.

Mold grows all year round in wet or damp environments and prefers a warmer climate. As mold needs moisture to grow, it may attach itself anywhere there is dampness or in areas that are constantly wet. Generally speaking, mold likes damp spaces or high humidity with limited ventilation, which is why it is found most often in basements and laundry rooms, attics and crawl spaces, kitchens and bathrooms; spaces that have constant moisture and/or less than ideal air circulation.

Mold produces seeds called spores that allow it to reproduce. These spores are tiny and very resistant; they can survive in highly varied conditions and can live long after damp or wet conditions have been eliminated. Mold spores live in the air entering the lungs and can cause breathing problems that can compromise your quality of sleep.

These spores can travel from a damp room like a bathroom to other rooms in your home like a bedroom. Once there, they can live for a long time undetected. Then, if dampness occurs and condensation builds up on a window sill or there is water damage on a ceiling, they will sprout and mold will develop.

The Appearance of Mold

What does mold look like?

There are numerous types of common mold that can all look different. Common household varieties include: Cladosporium, Penicillium, Alternaria, and Aspergillus, and less common, more serious varieties, like Stachybotrys Chartarum, referred to as black mold.

Mold is a multicellular organism with filament or thread-like structures called hyphae. Some varieties look like a member of the dandelion family when the flower has gone to seed; this is only visible when greatly magnified.

In your home, mold will appear in a colony usually visible scattered across a wall, attached to clothing, in a shower or bathtub, or hidden in walls or around the plumbing. Wherever there is moisture, and something to attach to, mold can develop. It comes in different colors and more than one variety can appear together. Mold can appear light or even white, off white, grey, various shades of brown or brownish green, or black. Black is considered the most dangerous to health.

If mold spores are invisible how do you know they are there?

Mold spores are everywhere, inside and outside, and are too small for the eye to see before they germinate. When a spore lands on a wet surface, it starts to grow right away and can spread throughout your home within a matter of days. It can take between one and twelve days to fully colonize and can grow at the rate of one inch per day.

Since mold spores travel, it is possible to have visible mold in one area of your home like the bathroom and unseen spores in another room like your bedroom. Since mold often grows in out-of-sight places like behind walls or under floorboards, the musty smell it gives off will be the indicator that mold is present. Between traveling spores and hidden mold colonies, mold anywhere in the house can mean mold everywhere in the house.

The Effects of Mold

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) profiles the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) research linking exposure to mold to upper repository symptoms and breathing disorders. Mold can create poor indoor air quality, which in turn can cause lowered immune function, breathing problems, and sleep disorders. Although most molds are not toxic, when a foreign substance enters the body, in this case, the spores into the lungs, the body naturally rallies its’ defenses and goes on alert. This alert causes inflammation and lowered immune function.

Some individuals with mold exposure are relatively asymptomatic, while others react with eye, nose, throat or skin irritations, coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath, asthma, and apnea.  Indoor mold exposure is linked to the onset of asthma in childhood. Mold can further trigger an asthma attack in people who already suffer from the disorder or it can produce more severe reactions that lead to lung infections.

In addition to asthma and breathing disorders, mold can affect brain functioning and result in a disorder known as toxic mold syndrome. This syndrome is hallmarked by numerous health challenges like insomnia, confusion, chronic fatigue, memory lapses, depression, and loss of appetite. This toxic mold syndrome is linked to black mold and the mycotoxins it produces rather than the ordinary non-toxic varieties. Further, there is some inconclusive research that points to mycotoxins from Stachybotrys Chartarum or black mold, as a cause of pulmonary fibrosis or lung scarring, which in advanced cases can lead to lung cancer.

Allergic and Toxic Reactions to Mold

Some individuals are naturally more sensitive to mold than others, and some molds are naturally more toxic than others. Allergies to mold are considered very common and not particularity dangerous in healthy individuals. However, individuals exposed to mold that already have a compromised immune system, like children and older adults, or those with cancer or autoimmune disorders, can suffer more extreme allergic reactions.

These reactions can cause neurological problems, lung infections, or even death. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that children exposed to mold have a greater risk of developing numerous health problems. There is also research looking at additional ways of acquiring mold toxicity like ingesting mold and skin contact. Worldwide there is evidence of increasing deaths due to poor indoor air quality associated with mold.

Mold in your Bedroom: Effects on Sleep

More and more research is pointing to a link between sleep disorders and mold exposure. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have mold in your bedroom?
  • Is there a musty smell in your home?
  • Have you had any leaking or water damage recently?
  • Are you experiencing any symptoms that might be related to mold?
  • Can you see visible mold growing in your room?

A quick assessment might give you some answers. If you think you have a mold problem that might be affecting your sleep, start by understanding how mold is causing problems.

Sleeping in a moldy environment allows for a longer exposure and a more concentrated time for spores to enter the lungs. Those spores can contain toxins that affect hormones and brain function. In both children and adults mold can interfere with the quality and the quantity of sleep. Common complaints are inability to fall asleep, trouble sleeping through the night, or getting a reduced amount of sleep overall.

There are two primary ways that mold can interfere with sleep.

  1. The first is by interacting with the lungs and causing breathing problems like asthma, hay fever, or apnea.
  2. Second, once toxins from mold spores enter the body, they are stored in the fat cells and concentrated in the brain. They can wreak havoc with the hormones your brain regulates like cortisol and melatonin which affect sleep and they can alter thyroid and pituitary function.These effects literally cause a metabolic disruption that can seriously dis-regulate sleep. This happens in part because the lowered metabolic function results in inflammation and increased activity in the brain. Your body literally wants to get rid of the toxins, and so it goes into a heightened state of arousal; a fight-or-flight state of emergency in an attempt to expel the mold toxins. This heightened state can result in anxiety, insomnia, and the inability of the brain to shut down. Overall, it dramatically affects good sleep.

Mold Remediation and Pathways to Better Sleep

To eliminate mold, you might start by having mold levels in your home tested. You can use either a home kit or have testing done by a professional. Then, after testing, clear your house of mold and then test again. If you can’t clear the mold completely, concentrate efforts in sleeping areas. Here are some ideas for remediation:

  • Keep your windows dry and free from condensation
  • Keep household humidity low, between 30 and 50 percent with the use of a dehumidifier
  • Use an air conditioner or exhaust fan to keep air moving and dry
  • Check ventilation, especially in basements and bathrooms
  • Repair any leaks to plumbing
  • Add mold retardants to paint
  • Remove carpet or rugs from bathrooms and basements
  • Kill mold in showers with bleach or sprays
  • Don’t put wet towels in hampers
  • Have carpets cleaned
  • Dust regularly and keep furniture away from walls
  • Check plants for mold growing on top of the soil and replace the soil if needed
  • Change furnace filters and have ducts cleaned
  • Don’t keep old books, magazines or newspapers, especially don’t store in the basement

It may take time after mold remediation to return to a better sleep pattern and you may need support from your physician. With some effort, you can clear the mold from your home and improve your quality of sleep.