What are mycotoxins?
Mycotoxins are toxins produced by mold spores when they sporulate, or grow. They can have serious health effects on humans and animals. Mycotoxins are so poisonous that they have been used as a biological war weapon. Stachybotrys chartarum is the most studied and well-known toxic mold. It is known to produce trichothecene mycotoxins. Aspergillus produces aflatoxin mycotoxins. Aflatoxins are among the most carcinogenic substances known. It is estimated that 500,000 deaths occur yearly in the United States due to exposure to indoor toxic mold.
How do mycotoxins make you sick?
Mycotoxins enter the body through inhalation, ingestion, or contact with the skin, and can result in a multitude of symptoms including but not limited to: dermatitis, cough, rhinitis, nose bleeds, cold and flu-like symptoms, headache, general malaise and fever.
These mold toxins are extremely potent and often affect nearly every organ system in your body. Some effects resemble radiation sickness. Some are neurotoxic and produce central nervous system effects, including cognitive and behavioral changes, ataxia and convulsions. Approximately 70 percent of the people with confirmed exposure to toxigenic molds exhibit significant neurotoxicity.
How can exposure to mold and mycotoxins affect my health?
Mycotoxin exposure can lead to toxic injury that may include multiple illnesses, affecting the skin and the nervous, vascular, respiratory, digestive, reproductive, urinary, and immune systems; including the formation of cancers and can be life-threatening.
Many common health problems may be associated with mold exposure, but very few people have connected the dots. This is why it is SO important for you to be aware of the seriousness of this problem and become familiar with what to look for.
From a toxicity point of view, some mycotoxins (toxic substances produced by mold) are actually far more toxic than heavy metals, in terms of concentration. Mycotoxins also tend to affect more biological systems in your body than do pesticides or heavy metals, partly because fungi have the ability to dodge your immune system by rapidly mutating, while at the same time producing chemicals thatsuppress your immune system.
If your immune system is stressed in any way, or if you are extremely sensitive and have allergy-like reactions to a variety of agents, then you may be even more sensitive to mold than the average person and have chronic symptoms directly related to mold in your environment. But even if you are generally healthy, mold can still pose a significant risk if you are caught off-guard.
Deadly mycotoxins can enter your brain through your eyes and nose
One of the reasons mycotoxins are so toxic is they can cross directly into your brain. Your olfactory neurons are in direct communication with your brain—there is no barrier. Anything you have inhaled or smelled, even if it doesn’t have an odor, can go directly into your brain via these olfactory neurons. Mycotoxins have even been found to enter your brain via optic muscles and optic nerves. This lack of a blood-brain barrier has been confirmed in scientific studies.
This creates the potential for mold-induced sinusitis to lead to serious brain complications if left untreated.
More than 200 mycotoxins have been identified from common molds. Mycotoxins interfere with RNA synthesis and may cause DNA damage. Mycotoxins, even in minute quantities, are lipid-soluble and readily absorbed by your intestinal lining, airways and skin. Even spores that are no longer able to reproduce can still harm your health due to these mycotoxins—in other words, “dead” mold spores are every bit as dangerous as “live” ones. The spores do not produce the toxins—rather, it is thought that the toxins are produced when the spores are produced, by the mold colony.
The mycotoxins that have probably received the most attention by researchers are the trichothecenes, produced by Stachybotyrs chartarum and Aspergillus versicolor, two of the molds I’d like to discuss due to their especially toxic effects.
The toxic effects of Stachybotrys, or black mold, chartarum were first reported in the 1920s in Russia when horses and cattle that had eaten moldy hay began dying. The “Yellow Rain” attacks in Southeast Asia in the 1970s were associated with aerosolized trichothecenes, the type of mycotoxin produced by this highly toxic type of mold.
SC is typically dark in color and wet and slimy to the touch. It can also appear grayish or sooty, with a powdery appearance. The color of a mold generally has to do with the spores it produces, and has no bearing on whether it is dangerous or not. There are some white molds that grow on walls and other surfaces that can be just as bad as the harmful black molds.”
Mycotoxin poisoning by Stachybotrys is referred to as stachybotryotoxicosis. In animal studies, trichothecenes are 40 times more toxic when inhaled than when ingested orally. But even if SC is present in your environment, you may not be at risk because it may not be currently releasing toxins.
When these mycotoxins are present, they can suppress and even destroy your immune system, including your lymphoid tissue and bone marrow. Animals injected with SC toxins experience hemorrhaging from their brains and other organs, including their thymus, spleen, lungs, intestine, liver and kidney. Humans with chronic exposure to SC mycotoxins have reported the following health problems:
- Cold and flu symptoms
- Respiratory problems, such as asthma and nose bleeds
- Memory loss
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Dermatitis and rashes
- Fatigue and generalized malaise
- Hair loss
- Pulmonary hemorrhage, emphysema-like disease
- Autoimmune disease
Aspergillosis: mold in your lungs
Aspergilli are some of the most common environmental molds, frequently found in decaying plant matter, such as compost heaps. Inside, it’s found in air conditioning and heating ducts, insulation, and even on some food and spices. Most strains of this common mold are not dangerous, but a few can cause serious illness when their spores are inhaled by people who have weakened immune systems, as is the case with asthma or underlying lung disease. Or, healthier individuals can be at risk from long-term exposure to mold quietly growing in water-damaged buildings.
Infections caused by Aspergillus are called aspergillosis, which is actually a group of illnesses ranging from mild to severe lung infections, or even whole-body infections. The most serious type of aspergillosis is invasive aspergillosis, which is when the mold invades your blood vessels and the spreads to the rest of your body.
Aspergillus allergy can result in fever, productive cough and worsening asthma.
With aspergillosis, you can actually grow a “fungal ball” in your lungs, a tangled ball of fungal fiber called aspergilloma. Aspergilloma can lead to coughing up blood (hemoptysis), wheezing, shortness of breath, fatigue and weight loss. According to the Mayo Clinic, if this type of fungal infection becomes very severe, it can spread to your brain, heart, kidneys or skin. You can also develop pneumonia. Invasive aspergillosis can cause:
- Fever and chills
- Hemoptysis (coughing up blood)
- Pulmonary hemorrhage
- Shortness of breath
- Chest or joint pain
- Facial swelling on one side
Other diseases associated with mold exposure
Dangerous molds have now been linked to a number of different diseases that are prevalent today, including learning disabilities, gastrointestinal disturbances and GERD, heart problems, cancer, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and several autoimmune diseases. Kurt and Lee Ann Billings wrote the book Mold: The War Within after extensive personal bouts with toxic mold exposure, writing extensively about their experience and recovery. They describe ongoing problems with thyroid regulation, in terms of both excess and deficiency, among a multitude of other health problems.
The truth is, when your immune system is impaired, almost anything can happen in terms of negative health affects. This makes identifying the cause a real challenge, and when mold is hidden, it is extremely easy to miss the link between toxic mold exposure and a persisting health problem. This makes it that much more important to find a healthcare provider who can perform a smart, comprehensive evaluation if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having an unexplained medical condition.