Mould and Mycotoxins
You may already be aware that mould and mycotoxins can cause imbalances in the gut such as leaky gut, malabsorption, and imbalances in the gut microbiome, deplete the body of glutathione (the main antioxidant in the body), increasing inflammation, and increase your susceptibility to infections. Remember mycotoxins are chemicals produced by moulds. And what may surprise you is that we aren’t just exposed to mycotoxins through living or working in a water damaged building. Mycotoxins can also be found in many of founds we eat. Aspergillus, Penicillium, and Fusarium are the three most common mould species found to affect food. All three produce different mycotoxins which have different effects on different body systems.
Primary prevention is the best strategy to reduce mould and mycotoxin-related illness, especially if you are unfortunately one of the 24% of the population with a genetic suspectibility. Inhalation of mould spores and mycotoxins through living/working in a water damaged building is the primary source of exposure for the majority of people affected by mould illness. However regular exposure through contaminated food can definitely add to the toxic burden over time and I have found can prevent some people from fully healing and getting better. Avoiding foods that are also commonly contaminated with mould and mycotoxins can play a key role in healing, providing that you are also working on environmental exposures. Not many studies have looked into the effects of chronic low level exposure to mycotoxins, but the few studies that have concluded that mycotoxin exposure (even at low levels) can affect your gut microbiome and will also impede your focus and cognitive function, hello brain fog!
Why are Mycotoxins in My Food?
Fungi are everywhere and have been thriving way before human existence. Certain types of foods are known to inhabit more fungi than others such as carbohydrates. It is estimated that each fungus on Earth produces up to three different mycotoxins. The total number of mycotoxins known to date numbers in the thousands. Mycotoxin can occur in food and agricultural products via many contamination pathways, at any stage of production, processing, transport, and storage. A common possible route of exposure can through eating animals or animal products which have consumed mycotoxin-contaminated feed, i.e grain fed dairy or meat. Mycotoxins are resistant to heat and cannot be completely destroyed under normal cooking process.
The Food and Drug Administration in the United States, as well as the European Union, have limits and regulations for several mycotoxins allowed in food. The Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code currently have regulations for two mycotoxins, Aflatoxin and Phomopsin all the rest to this date are unfortunately unregulated.
Some of the highest mycotoxin foods that I recommend clients avoid during healing include:
Aflotoxin B1, Ochratoxin A and Fumonisin can be commonly found in coffee beans. AFB1 is a well known carcinogen and Ochratoxin a is a less studied and weaker carcinogen that may be harmful to the brain and kidneys. Ochratoxin A causes oxidative stress in the body, which impairs mitochondrial function, and disrupts protein synthesis. One particular study has found 45% of commercially available coffee beans contained Ochratoxin A. One coffee company I’ve discovered in Australia is Byron Bay Coffee Company, who regularly test their Organic Decaf and Organic Espresso blends, which are mycotoxin free.
Alcohol is the mycotoxin of the Saccharomyces yeast–brewer’s yeast. Other mycotoxins besides alcohol can also be introduced into these beverages through the use of mold-contaminated grains and fruits. Mould growth can also be facilitated through the fermentation process of alcohol (particularly wine and beer). Mycotoxins are commonly reported in fruits (grapes and other fruits), as well as in cereals (barley wheat and maize) used in wine and beer production.
Alcohol can also be incredibly high in histamine, which when consumed in someone with raised inflammatory cytokines (due to mould or other illness). Best to avoid it all together. If you must have one drink a high quality potato based vodka (such as Vestal) with soda water would be all I would go for.
Sadly, Chocolate tends to be high in mould and mycotoxins due to warm, humid growing and storage conditions. One particular study has shown that the darker the chocolate the higher the concentration of aflatoxins and white chocolate on the other end of the scale containing minimal mycotoxin levels. Generally speaking, those in the early stages of CIRS/Mould illness healing you should really carefully avoid chocolate (and follow a low amylose/mould free/anti-inflammatory diet) while undergoing treatment for biotoxin illness. Does this mean you can never enjoy rich chocolate again? If you can’t live without a little chocolate here and there you may need to do some self-experimentation to find a brand that works for you. Or just have a small piece of the darkest chocolate you can find to satisfy.
Grains are a major source of mould-contaminated foods. Research has shown they contain the following mycotoxins—aflatoxin B1, ochratoxin A, fumonisin B1, deoxynivalenol, and zearalenone. Ochratoxin A has been found in barley, oats, rye, wheat, coffee beans, and other plant products, with barley having a particularly high likelihood of contamination. Corn is “universally contaminated” with fumonisin and other fungal toxins such as aflatoxin, zearalenone and ochratoxin. Mycotoxins in corn are produced by certain molds which infect the ears of corn.
Sadly, organic grains aren’t superior to conventional grains when it comes to their mycotoxin concentrations. One study have shown that probiotic bacteria used in fermentation such as sourdough starter cultures can reduce mycotoxin levels in grains. In other words, a little traditional sourdough bread may be tolerated here and there. See how your body reacts.
5. Peanuts and other nuts
Since nuts contain very low levels of soluble carbohydrates, a small increase in moisture content (eg, condensation due to temperature changes during transport and storage) can result in substantial increase in mould levels. Aflatoxins are produced by Aspergillus mould species and peanuts are unfortunately one of the most well known sources of aflatoxins. I have that many of my CIRS/Mould illness clients react to peanuts. I strongly recommend all my clients to avoid peanuts and peanut products. Nuts such as almonds and walnuts might be safer and more tolerable options. Other nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, pistachios, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and cashews have been found to contain mycotoxins, however in some of my clients they have been well tolerated, especially if they are soaked and activated.
6. Sugar Cane
Sugar cane and sugar beets have been found to be contaminated with zearalenone, mycophenolic acid, roquefortine C and ochratoxin A. Not only is sugar cane and many refined sugars often contaminated with different mycotoxins, but they, like the other grains, fuel the growth of fungi. Fungi need carbohydrates sugars to survive. Best to steer clear as much as possible for all sugar sources.
7. Grain fed meats, dairy and eggs
High mycotoxin contamination is a massive problem in the grain-based animal feeds. Unfortunately when animals eat these contaminated feeds, mycotoxins distribute into their meat, eggs, and milk. The toxins can also be found in the milk of animals that are fed contaminated feed, in the converted form of aflatoxin M1. Production animals, such as cows and pigs, are likely to consume these pre-production crops, and can remain contaminated for up to 2 weeks, in which time they can be slaughtered or milked. Go for organic grass fed meats, organic dairy and organic pasture fed eggs. Get to know your local farmers and see if you can source direct.
8. Dried Fruits
Studies have shown almost all dried fruits (particularly raisins) to be contaminated with moulds such as Aspergillus and Penicillium. If you just can’t give up a little dried fruit here and there try dehydrating your own fruit at home using fresh, mould-free fruits with a low humidity setting and environment.
Black tea and pu-erh tea (used to make green, oolong, and black teas) have been found to be contaminated with aflatoxins and ochratoxin A. Tea fungal contamination can occur at any stage of its production. A wet and warm climate favourable for tea cultivation is also suitable for fungal growth. Due to green teas minimal processing methods it is expected to be the least contaminated out of all teas.
10. Hard Cheeses
If you see mould growing throughout your cheese, no matter how much it costs, there’s a high chance that there’s a bunch of different mycotoxins not far from the mould. Some of the highest mycotoxin cheeses to steal clear of are stilton, blue cheese, gorgonzola, and Roquefort. On the other hand, some cheeses, such as Gouda cheese, are made with yogurt-type cultures, like Lactobacillus, and not fungi and may be tolerated.
“Gray Area” Fermented products
Probiotic strains from kefir have been shown to bind mycotoxins and to decrease their gastrointestinal absorption. One particular study showed kefir grains could absorb 82 to 100% of mycotoxins such as aflatoxin B1, zearalenone, and ochratoxin A, when cultivated in milk. Additionally, many other microorganisms have been reported to convert aflatoxin into less toxic substances. Probiotic strains such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus have been found to convert aflatoxin into less toxic substances. Studies have also shown fermented foods in general have the ability to reduce mycotoxins by conversion, detoxification, binding, degradation, and decontamination after food fermentation.
However don’t rush into a jar of sauerkraut just yet. I just want to point out that fermentation of foods can cause histamine creation in the food product depending on the processing. This histamine creation can cause inflammation in some people who are sensitised or already overwhelmed by histamines. Mast cell activation is commonly seen in CIRS/Mould illness patients. And Mould exposure triggers the release of histamine from mast cells. I find that some of my clients do well on with some fermented foods and they whilst others strongly react to them. I find that some of my clients do well on with some fermented foods and they whilst others strongly react to them. Test some fermented foods and see how you feel.
Oh course healing from CIRS/mould illness doesn’t mean that dietary wise you should just avoid high mycotoxin foods. If you are working towards healing from mould illness CIRS one of the first things you can do whilst (whilst correcting your environmental exposure) is to eliminated processed, refined western foods. Some preclinical research has found that a processed diet worsens the neuroinflammatory effects of mould.
For many clients this involves avoiding four categories of inflammatory foods:
- Gluten (gluten consumption triggers a chronic inflammatory response)
- Acellular carbohydrates (refined flours, grains and sugars) – raw honey may be an exception
- Dairy (grain fed particularly)
- Industrial seed oils (vegetable, canola, rapeseed oil)
Foods to be eaten freely
- Organic pastured animal products: beef, bison, veal, lamb buffalo, wild-caught seafood, poultry, pastured eggs
- Low carbohydrate vegetables: broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, arugula, chard, cucumber, peppers, tomato (fresh only), onion, leek, asparagus, garlic, artichokes (NOTE: for those with pain, myalgia and aching, nightshades should be avoided)
- Raw nuts and seeds: sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, almonds, low mold nuts (avoid pistachios, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, cashews, brazil nuts)
- Healthy Fats: Extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, coconut milk, ghee, avocado, organic butter
- Other: Tamari GF Soy Sauce, Tempeh, Miso, Apple Cider Vinegar
- Beverages: Filtered Water, non-fruity herbal teas, mineral water, fresh veggie juice, organic mold-free coffee
A note on mycotoxins in mushrooms
Some people claim that mushrooms should be eliminated from the diet when trying to reduce mold and mycotoxins. However, mushrooms do not produce mycotoxins, nor are they known to have commonly high mycotoxin contamination. Mushrooms can produce mushroom poisons instead, and the main caution is to clearly identify mushrooms and avoid consuming poisonous species.
Preventing Mould Growth on Foods
• Inspect whole grains (especially corn, rye, sorghum, wheat, rice), dried fruits and nuts such as peanuts, pistachio, almond, walnut, coconut, Brazil nuts and hazelnuts which are all regularly contaminated with aflatoxins for evidence of mould, and discard any that look mouldy, discoloured, or shrivelled.
• Avoid damage of grains before and during drying, and in storage, as damaged grain is more prone to invasion of molds and therefore mycotoxin contamination.
• Fresh is best! mycotoxin formation is mostly produced in the production, harvesting, transport and storage stages. Buy grains and nuts as fresh as possible.
• Make sure that foods are stored properly – kept free of insects, dry, in the dark and not too warm.
• Do not keep foods for extended periods of time before being used, and eat a diverse diet – this not only helps to reduce mycotoxins exposure, but also improves nutrition.