Part 2: Mycotoxin Health Effects and How to Test for Mold

By Lindsay Christensen

Nutritionist @ The Pratt Clinics


In Part 1 of this blog series, I discussed the routes by which people are exposed to mold and mycotoxins. In this post, I’ll explain the effects of mycotoxins on the body and how to test for mold and mycotoxin exposure.

How do mycotoxins affect the body?

Mycotoxins are generally quite toxic to humans and other animals. They adversely affect multiple body systems, including the respiratory tract, gut, liver, kidneys, brain, and immune system. 

Mycotoxins affect the lungs and sinuses

Some of the most commonly recognized symptoms of toxic mold exposure are respiratory ailments, including asthma, pneumonitis (inflammation of the alveoli of the lungs), and chronic fungal rhinosinusitis. Mycotoxins irritate the respiratory system by inducing a harmful immune response in respiratory tissues and by exerting toxic-irritant effects. If you are struggling with an unexplained chronic cough, chest tightness, or chronic nasal congestion, it may be time to investigate whether your living environment is a source of mold.  

Mycotoxins harm the gut

Recent research indicates that mycotoxins have a vast array of effects on the gut. While human gut microbes can bind and metabolize mycotoxins to a degree, they may not be able to keep up with continuous mycotoxin exposure. Furthermore, pre-existing gut dysbiosis impairs the body’s ability to eliminate mycotoxins and may cause a more severe response to environmental mold and mycotoxins. 

Repeated exposure to mycotoxins reduces beneficial gut bacteria and enhances the growth of pathogens. Ochratoxin reduces beneficial Lactobacillus reuteri and Bifidobacteria and increases enterotoxigenic E. coli and facultative anaerobes, some of which are pathogenic. Mycotoxins also increase susceptibility to gastrointestinal parasites. 

Mycotoxins also increase intestinal permeability, degrade intestinal villi (the sites of nutrient absorption in the intestine) and generate reactive oxygen species that are cytotoxic to intestinal cells. (8, 9, 10) Clearly, mycotoxins can do quite a number on the gut! 

Mycotoxins harm the brain 

Mycotoxins increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, damage the endothelial cells that line cerebral blood vessels, reduce neuronal mitochondrial function, and promote persistently high levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (immune system molecules) in the frontal brain region; these changes cause brain inflammation and impair brain function. Strikingly, neuropsychological testing has revealed that mold and mycotoxin exposure causes impairments in brain function similar to those seen in traumatic brain injury! It also impairs balance, reaction time, and color discrimination, decreases memory and executive functioning, stimulates “brain fog,” and may contribute to the development of autism and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Hormonal effects

Mycotoxins produced by Fusarium and Alternaria fungi have potent estrogenic effects; they compete with the hormone estrogen for binding locations on estrogen receptors, resulting in changes to the female reproductive system and infertility. 

Mycotoxins may provoke autoimmune disease 

Mold-exposed individuals demonstrate high levels of neural autoantibodies, indicating an increased risk of autoimmunity in the brain and nervous system. Mycotoxins may provoke the development of autoimmune disease by modulating the intestinal immune system. 

Mycotoxins are associated with chronic fatigue syndrome

A 2013 study found that of 112 patients with an established diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome, 93% of the patients tested positive for at least one mycotoxin in their urine. Health questionnaires indicated that 90% of the patients had current and/or past exposure to a water-damaged environment. 

Mycotoxins promote cancer growth

Mycotoxins are lipophilic (“fat-loving”) which means they can easily cross lipid-based cell membranes. Once inside cells, mycotoxins interact with nuclear DNA, causing mutations that increase the risk of cancer. The most carcinogenic mycotoxins appear to be aflatoxin, ochratoxin, and sterigmatocystin, a mycotoxin produced by Aspergillus. Cancer suppressor genes, such as P53, BRCA1, and BRCA2 are particularly affected by mycotoxins. Zearalenone and aflatoxin promote cell growth and cell-cycle progression in breast cancer cells and may thereby support breast cancer growth. Mycotoxin exposure is known to cause liver, urinary tract, and lung cancer and may cause intestinal and esophageal malignancies as well. 

Assessing your environment 

If you suspect you have mold illness, the first step is to test your home and work environments for mold. It is impossible to recover your health if you continue to expose yourself to a water-damaged, mold-filled environment. Hire a reputable mold inspection company and have them do an ERMI (Environmental Relative Moldiness Index) test in your home. This test uses mold-specific quantitative polymerase chain reaction (MSqPCR) to identify and quantify molds in indoor environments from samples of settled house dust. Some people choose to use another test called HERTSMI, but this test only looks at 5 molds, whereas ERMI looks at 36 molds. HERTSMI is more frequently used to determine if a building is safe for reentry after mold remediation. This helpful article provides a comprehensive list of questions to ask a mold inspector before booking an appointment, to make sure he or she is qualified for the job. 

Genetic testing for mold susceptibility

As I mentioned earlier, variations in the HLA-DR gene prevent the body from recognizing mycotoxins as “bad,” and thus predispose individuals to mold-induced illness. Approximately 25% of the population has a variant and is susceptible to mold illness. Identifying whether you are a carrier of the HLA-DR variation can be useful because your healthcare provider can use the information to create a more intensive treatment approach. 

Determine your body burden of mycotoxins

There are two tests available to assess your body’s mycotoxin burden: The Real Time Labs mycotoxin test and Great Plains Laboratory’s GPL-MycoTox. Both tests are urine tests. The Real Time Labs test screens for 15 different mycotoxins with a testing methodology called ELISA. ELISA is the only mycotoxin testing method approved by the USDA and FDA. The results of the test tell whether a mycotoxin is present or not or equivocal, with an amount expressed in parts per billion (ppb). ELISA is only testing method approved by USDA for mycotoxin testing

The GPL-MycoTox, on the other hand, screens for 11 different mycotoxins using a technique called mass spectrometry. GPL-MycoTox is less expensive than Real Time Labs test; however, mass spectrometry but cannot detect modified mycotoxins and is not approved by the USDA or FDA. 

No matter which test you use, you need to provoke mycotoxin release before collecting urine; this will provide a more accurate reflection of your body burden of mycotoxins than an unprovoked test. The best way to provoke mycotoxin release is by taking liposomal glutathione or using an infrared sauna at least a few hours before doing the urine collection. 

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this blog series, in which I’ll cover strategies for helping your body recover from mold and mycotoxin exposure.  

If you need more information or help with your overall health, contact us at The Pratt Clinics.

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