These toxic species of mould are harmful to health because they produce toxins known as ‘mycotoxins’. Mycotoxins damage health in various ways, by binding to DNA and RNA; by altering protein synthesis; by causing oxidative stress and depletion of antioxidant levels; by damaging cell membrane and mitochondrial function; by suppressing the immune system and by altering apoptosis.
The most prominent species of fungi and their associated mycotoxins include the Aspergillus, Penicillium, Stachybotrys, Chaetomium and Trichoderma species, which produce the mycotoxins Aflotoxins (AT), Gliotoxins, Macrocyclic Trichothecenes, Chaetoglobsin, and Ochratoxin A (OTA). Aspergillus fumigatus, for example, is often seen in immuno-compromised patients, such as those undertaking chemotherapy or organ transplants; and Stachybotrys Chartarum is the black mould that can grow onto dry walls.
How do mycotoxins impact on health?
Our homes or workplaces may be affected by water damage and subsequent mould growth, or the food we take in may be contaminated with mould. Different species of mould and their mycotoxins impact health in a variety of ways. For example, Aflotoxins inhibit protein synthesis and can suppress the immune system, increasing risk of cancer. Their primary target organ is the liver, but can also be found in the lungs and brain. Ochratoxin A, inhibits mitochondrial ATP (energy) production, suppresses immune function and antibody production, and stimulates lipid peroxidation. It targets the kidneys, and is associated with urinary tract infection and bladder cancer.
Who is most at risk from mycotoxins?
We are all exposed to mycotoxins every day, but not everyone will become ill as a result. In theory, those exposed to mycotoxins should be able to recover once exposure has been removed because their detoxification system can deal with the toxins and restore health. However, certain conditions and factors alter our ability to deal with the mycotoxins that we encounter.
- Mould favours wet, warm and moist conditions; and drought can increase moulds through the food chain, by weakening the kernels of plants and allowing fungal contamination.
- Time spent in water damaged buildings can lead to ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ because mould can grow within 24 hours of a water leak on many surfaces including wallpaper, dry walls, carpets, wood, ceiling tiles, dust and paper.
- Children, thanks to their increased respiratory rate and developing immune systems, are more prone to the negative effects of mycotoxin exposure.
- Those eating a poor diet low in nutrients, protein and fats, and high in sugars are more at risk.
- Those contaminated with higher levels of heavy metals and other environmental toxins, as well as those suffering from stress and emotional trauma, may be less able to cope with and recover from mycotoxin exposure.
- And finally those with genetic mutations (SNPs) may be predisposed to methylation and detoxification difficulties, or have an HLA gene that prevents their body from recognizing and eliminating the mycotoxins they encounter. This allows toxins to remain in the body and trigger a chronic inflammatory response, termed ‘Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome’ or CIRS, by Dr Ritchie Shoemaker, a specialist in mould-related illness.
Genetic susceptibility to mycotoxins
Dr Shoemaker believes that 25% of the population may be genetically prone to developing CIRS as long as two conditions are present. The first is high levels of exposure to a mycotoxin and the second is an inflammatory event such as a serious upper respiratory infection or transmission of a tick-borne disease such as Lyme disease.
What are the possible symptoms of mycotoxin exposure?
For those exposed to mycotoxins, there are hundreds of possible symptoms that may result, including: fatigue, muscle and joint pain, burning eyes, nausea, numbness and tingling, dizziness, insomnia, irritability, depression, brain fog, memory impairment, skin rashes, yeast infections, allergies, asthma, weight fluctuations, autoimmunity, sinus infections, nosebleeds, and headaches.
Reducing exposure to mycotoxins
- Keep indoor areas dry, fix and clean up any leaks when they occur
- Repair and protect areas where water can penetrate through walls
- Wash mould from hard surfaces, allowing them to dry fully
- Replace mouldy silicon sealant from around the bath and window frames
- Use a dehumidifier
- Use an air purifier with a HEPA filter to remove mould spores and mycotoxins from the air
- Clean and remove mould from any air conditioning or air filtration units
- Remove and discard carpets that have become mouldy, and use hard flooring where possible
- Open windows to keep air flowing
Testing for mycotoxin exposure
The variety of symptoms associated with mycotoxin exposure can make self-diagnosis difficult. Mycotoxins may be a factor in any number of conditions where neurological abnormalities, endocrine dysfunction, chronic fatigue, fertility challenges, oxidative stress and immune dysregulation are present. Working with an experienced health practitioner who can clinically evaluate symptoms and recommend testing is important.
Testing for mycotoxin exposure is usually done via a urinary sample, using ELISA – a very sensitive detection method using antibodies prepared against mycotoxins. The lab we use: Real Time Lab and Great Plains Laboratory.