Mycotoxins- The Hidden Danger

September 16, 2020

Mycotoxins are a relatively large, diverse group of naturally occurring, fungal (mould) toxins, which have been strongly implicated as chemical agents of toxic disease in humans and animals. Mycotoxins are secondary metabolites synthesized by a variety of fungal species. These toxins have attracted worldwide attention because of their impact on human health, huge economic losses, and domestic and foreign trade. 

The term ‘mycotoxin’ was coined in 1962 in the aftermath of an unusual veterinary crisis near London, during which approximately 100,000 turkeys had died. When this mysterious turkey X disease was linked to a peanut (groundnut) meal contaminated with secondary metabolites, it sensitized scientists to the possibility that these fungal metabolites might be deadly.

Although more than 500 mycotoxins have been identified, potentially toxigenic, major mycotoxins influencing our health include,

  • Aflatoxins (AFTs)
  • Ochratoxins (OTs)
  • Trichothecenes (TCTs)
  • Fumonisins (FUMs)
  • Zearalenone (ZEN)
  • Patulin (PAT)
  • Citrinin (CT) 
  • Ergot alkaloids (EAs)

Food Sources

Mycotoxin can occur in food and agricultural products via many contamination pathways, at any stage of production, processing, transport, and storage. Mycotoxin can enter the human food chain directly by consuming contaminated plants and food products and indirectly through residues in milk, meat, eggs, and their derivatives.

Mycotoxin species Food commodity that is contaminated

List of food sources of mycotoxins

- Aflatoxins: Corn,wheat, rice, jowar, ground nuts, almonds, oilseeds, dried fruits, cheese, spices, milk, eggs, meat.

- Ochratoxins: Barley, wheat, dried fruits, wine, coffee, oats, spices, rye, raisins, grape juice.

- Trichothecenes: Cereals, cereal based products.

- Fumonisins Corn, corn based products, jowar, asparagus, rice, milkZearalenoneBarley, oats, wheat rice, sesame, soybeans and cereal based products.

- Patulin: Apples, apple juice, cheries, cereals, apricots, grapes, pears, peaches, olives, bilberries

- Citrinin : Stored grains and grain based products, cheese, spicesErgot alkaloidsWheat, rye, barley, millets, oats, jowar, triticale (a hybrid of wheat)

Impacts on health

Mycotoxicosis, the disease resulting from exposure to a mycotoxin, may be manifested as acute to chronic and ranges from rapid death to tumor formation. Many hidden diseases may occur when mycotoxins interfere with immune processes, rendering the person who has consumed them more susceptible to infectious and other diseases. Numerous diseases have been seen in humans for which evidence implicates mycotoxins as the root cause.

  • Impaired growth and development

Adults usually have a high tolerance of mycotoxins and, in the reported acute poisonings, it’s children are those who die. Mycotoxins are likely to cause infectious diseases in children which results in reduced food intake and also the repartitioning of nutrients to maintain an

upregulated immune system and away from growth and development.

  • Immunosuppression

Mycotoxins are immunotoxic as they can cause a variety of immune-related changes. They are capable of decreasing your resistance to infections by suppressing your immune system functioning.

  • Allergies

Exposure to mould may lead to mycotoxin allergy, sensitivity, or a variety of unwanted symptoms due to their direct attack on the immune system. Symptoms of mycotoxin allergy may include:

Runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion, watery eyes, itching, skin rashes and in a few cases manifestation of asthamatic symptoms can also be noticed.

  • Carcinogenic (cancer causing)

The metabolites of all the different classes of mycotoxins have been declared to be potent carcinogens by IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer). Liver, kidney, esophageal, breast and skin are among some of the cancers caused by mycotoxins via DNA damage, oxidative stress and death of functioning cells.

  • Liver damage

The aflatoxins, known causes of acute aflatoxicosis, are also potential cofactors of hepatic

carcinoma, together with the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). This mycotoxin suppresses the DNA repair mechanisms and prevents detoxification which leads to further development of cancer cells.

  • Gastrointestinal infections

The gastrointestinal tract is the primary target organ and is exposed directly to mycotoxins. Mycotoxins disrupt the gut microbiota balance, and thereby dysregulate intestinal functions and impair  immune response, which may eventually result in systemic toxicity that leads to chronic mycotoxicosis.

  • Kidney disorders

A study reported that rural populations in the Balkans have a high incidence of chronic kidney problems and tumors of the excretory organ system, named to be as Balkan

Endemic Nephropathy (BEN). The reason behind is thought to be conjecturally associated with Ochratoxin A. The toxin, believed to cause nephropathy is also a potent carcinogen, with the potential to cause BEN-associated cancer of the kidneys.

  • Respiratory problems

Inhalation of mycotoxins is especially hazardous to those living inside damp, wet, and mouldy

Buildings. Such toxic inhalation can lead to pulmonary irritation and headaches, fatigue, malaise, diarrhea, inflammation and lung injury of the nose, chest pain. The chemical nature of most of the mycotoxins makes them highly soluble compounds that can be absorbed from the site of exposure such as from the gastrointestinal and respiratory tract to the bloodstream where it can be disseminated throughout the body and reach different organs such as the liver and kidneys.

  • Antinutritional effects

Antinutrients are plant compounds that reduce the body's ability to absorb essential nutrients. Studies show that AFB- a mycotoxin metabolite interferes with vitamins A, D, B12, iron, selenium, and zinc metabolism.

  • Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS)

CIRS is commonly known as biotoxin illness. This is a multi-symptom, multi-system illness set in motion by exposure to biotoxins, or neurotoxins produced from a biological source such as moulds. Symptoms include: chronic fatigue, chronic pain, persistent cough, allergies, asthma, rashes, muscle cramps, headaches, disorientation, diarrhoea, vomiting, etc.

Mycotoxins may also lead to:

- Fatigue

- Sleeplessness

- Dry skin

- Hair loss

- Blurred vision

- Leaky gut syndrome

- Chronic pain

- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss

- Hormonal issues

- Numbness

- Insulin resistance

- Gut problems, such as nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps

- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

- Chemical sensitivity

- Blurred vision

- Fibromyalgia

- Behavioral changes

- Emotional changes

How to minimise your exposure to mycotoxins

  1. Avoid foods that are either contaminated or have high likelihood of mould growth

Above is the list of all the foods which can possibly expose you to this deadly toxin.

  1. Prevent growth of mycotoxins

It has been accepted that the prevention of different mycotoxins contamination is the primary measure and alternative over the other control methods. Herbal products such as spices, plant extracts, aromatic oils are good prevention alternatives. Natural herbs such as green tea, cinnamon, chamomile, ginger, black pepper, coriander, black seed, licorice, garlic, onion, fenugreek seeds, basil seeds, and roquette seeds can detoxify mycotoxins.

In a study report, it was found that turmeric extract can ensure protection against the adverse effects of these toxins. Medicinal plants, black cumin, clove and thyme extracts have efficacy in suppressing fungal growth. In a recent report leaves extracts from sweet passion fruit, rosemary and oregano efficiently degrade mycotoxins.

  1. Detoxing mycotoxins from your body

Some individuals will need to reduce the mycotoxin load in their diet by around 25-30% to see noticeable results.  Meanwhile, others may need to reduce the mycotoxin load by 75-80% to see noticeable health results. It all depends on how good your body is at detoxifying! The better your detoxification systems are, the better your body will deal with any mycotoxins you do ingest. Avoid processed, sugary foods, maintain a well-functioning gut and check for any nutrient deficiency. Another way is to sweat out mould toxins in an infrared sauna. The use of infrared saunas in combination with glutathione was proven effective in helping people return to work after mould illness from a water damaged building.

Probiotics which generally help restore the natural harmony of gut microbiota coupled with its mycotoxins reducing ability could increase its health-promoting value and is a good mycotoxicosis prevention/ treatment strategy.

Our recommendations: The severity of the damage caused by mycotoxins in the body may vary depending on factors such as vitamin deficiency, energy deprivation, alcohol use and infectious disease status. If you suspect you’ve been impacted by mycotoxins, there are a few tests that can actually check your toxic load. 

If you need help figuring out the tests or managing and recovering from your symptoms, reach out to us and we’ll be happy to help. 


Ria Jain
Functional Nutritionist

Ria has a Master’s in Nutrition and Dietetics and is in a permanent research mode and keeps the rest of us at iThrive (Previously ThriveFNC) updated with her latest findings in the field of Nutrition. Her articles on iThrive's blog are an expression of her research findings. We really don’t know what we’d do without her support and her focus.

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