Research & Education

When Mold is the Hidden Culprit

We are steeped in an era of chronic illness, often with unexplainable causes and vague medical diagnoses. This shift in our health needs has certainly stirred the waters of our understanding, challenged the paradigms we have confidently settled into, and put pressure on medical researchers to find answers. With these changes, we have discovered some significant environmental contributors to our health and the progression of our elusive and chronic health conditions.

Mold exposure from water damaged buildings and mycotoxins present in humid indoor air is a leading root cause of many chronic illnesses. It is estimated that nearly 25 percent of all buildings harbor some type of toxic mold and the resulting mycotoxins can be a major contributor to nearly half of all chronic illnesses. Mold is a hearty organism that lives and feeds on household surfaces with a high cellulose content such as wood, fiberboard, paper, lint, and dust. Modern HVAC systems help circulate the dangerous mycotoxins released from the growing mold species. Humans that reside in these environments for long durations inhale and ingest mycotoxins and find that their health is deteriorating and they are being plagued with mysterious symptoms. But because mycotoxin exposure has not been a common consideration in health, it is rarely identified in an initial health evaluation.

When to Use a Low Mold Diet

Mycotoxin exposure can cause an onset of seemingly unrelated symptoms. It may begin as an innocent upper respiratory infection or chronic sinus infection, but eventually, manifest itself as any of the following:

  • asthma
  • dermatological rashes
  • cognitive and behavioral issues
  • neurological conditions including neuropathy
  • vision changes
  • chronic fatigue
  • muscle and joint pain or stiffness
  • gastrointestinal distress
  • chronic inflammation
  • immune suppression and autoimmunity

As exposure continues, many people begin to develop multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), increased sensitivity to smells, fibromyalgia-like symptoms, and multiple food allergies. Symptoms may seem to worsen with changes in the weather and especially during wet seasons when mold counts are high.

Mycotoxins lead to chronic illness via 1) IgE mediated immune mechanisms, 2) direct infection by the organism, and 3) toxic-irritant effects from mold metabolites. An ELISA analysis showed a significant increase in IgG, IgM and IgA antibodies among those exposed to molds in water-damaged buildings.

Water-damaged buildings remain the primary source of toxic mold exposure, but many foods also contain toxic molds. In healthy individuals with an uncompromised immune system, the mycotoxins found in foods rarely disturb the body enough to lead to chronic illness. However, when the immune response becomes heightened from chronic, environmental mold exposure and mold-specific antibodies are generated, the immune system becomes sensitive to the molds commonly found on foods. This situation manifests itself as newly emerging food allergies and intolerances.

A critical element of resolving chronic illness associated with mold exposure is to remove the patient from sources of mold while using binders and detoxification support to reduce the mycotoxin load in the body. This plan necessitates the temporary use of a low-mold diet until mycotoxin load is lowered and the immune response is stable.

What is a Low-Mold Diet?

A low-mold diet reduces or eliminates foods known to carry molds or mycotoxins associated with mold-related illness. This diet will most closely resemble a Paleo-style, high-protein, grain-free diet plan. Sugar is a fuel source for molds and therefore, a low-mold diet also eliminates sugar sources, including high-sugar fruits. Not only does sugar promote mold growth, but over 73 fungal species were isolated from 40 samples of sugarcane in one study, and most fruit products contain mycotoxins. Bulk, imported foods are a common source of mycotoxins (and especially aflatoxin from Aspergillus), explaining why it is advantageous to eliminate most grains and nuts. Finally, fermented foods such as cheese and dairy, alcoholic beverages, and vinegars, as well as fungi such as mushrooms and yeast elicit immune responses to molds.

A low-mold diet eliminates the following foods which have been found to contain large amounts of common mycotoxins.

When healing from mold-induced illness, the following foods can be enjoyed as part of a low-mold diet:

  • Organic, pastured animal products, except dairy
  • Wild-caught fish and seafood
  • Low carbohydrate vegetables
  • Raw nuts and seeds, except those known to contain mold
  • Healthy fats including olive oil, nut oils, coconut products, avocado, ghee

Small amounts of the following foods may be tolerated as well:

  • High starch vegetables such as beans, peas, lentils, sweet potatoes, squash, turnip and parsnips
  • Low-sugar fruits such as berries, green apples, lemon/lime

By Nicole Spear, MS, CNS