Toxic mold exposure can take you from enjoying an unrestricted diet of your favorite foods to suffering from severe stomach problems no matter what you eat. I have patients who can only eat one or two things without bloating, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or other digestive issues.
If you have a history of mold exposure, toxic mold may be responsible for your stomach problems. That’s because mycotoxins, the toxic byproduct of some molds, as well as the immune response to mycotoxins can cause damage to your intestinal lining and harm your gut microbiome, leading to leaky gut. Leaky gut opens the door for a whole host of other health conditions including autoimmune diseases, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and environmental sensitivities.
Thankfully, with diet and lifestyle changes, it’s possible to get better. In this article, you’ll learn how mold causes chronic stomach problems and how you can heal your gut while detoxing mycotoxins from your body so you can reverse the root cause of illness and restore your joy in living…and eating.
How Is Mold to Blame for My Stomach Pain…I Didn’t Eat It?
You’re sure you haven’t eaten mold, so you’re probably wondering how it could cause your chronic stomach problems. Unfortunately, 25% of harvested crops test positive for mycotoxin contamination each year1. While toxic levels are typically low enough that your body can flush them out with little impact, what you eat and how you wash, store, and prepare your food is still important, even if mold is not visible.
In addition to food sources, mycotoxin exposure can occur through inhalation and dermal routes, especially when exposed to water damaged buildings. It’s thought that many airborne mycotoxins can be ingested once they’re inhaled from the surrounding air, causing intestinal damage. However, there is new research proposing an indirect mechanism that may be more at play where these chemicals actually directly affect immune response genes and transcription factors, and this is what leads to widespread inflammation, leaky membranes, and immune and endocrine dysfunction.2
This is especially true for those with a genetic susceptibility to Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS), a complex, multisystem illness caused by exposure to biotoxins, including mycotoxins. It has been proposed that people with certain HLA immune response genotypes are not able to produce antibodies that identify and remove biotoxins from their bodies. This causes a cascade of cytokine (chemical messengers that regulate the immune system) dysregulation that has an endpoint of damage to the gut. You can learn more about CIRS in my earlier post: Toxic Mold Exposure: 9 Misconceptions Corrected By An Expert.
How Toxic Mold Affects Gut Health
Regardless of the exposure route, mycotoxins, endotoxins, biotoxins, and the like negatively affect gut health by impairing several functions within the digestive and immune systems. To begin, these chemicals circulate with the bile through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract multiple times each day. Binding to surface receptors on almost every cell, they initiate a system-wide inflammatory response, including increased cytokine production.
The rush of cytokines to receptors throughout the body sets off a cascade of consequences. One of the most problematic is the blockage of leptin receptors in the hypothalamus of the brain. Overrun by cytokines, they are no longer able to perform their normal function of initiating production of alpha melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH). Long term, this causes fat cells to increase leptin production, which leads to weight gain that can’t be controlled by exercise or diet.
The Danger of alpha-Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone (MSH) Deficiency
Mold-induced MSH deficiency is especially dangerous for those susceptible to CIRS, but it can lead to leaky gut and more serious diagnoses in anyone exposed to mycotoxins. Leaky gut or intestinal permeability is a condition where toxins, bacteria, partially-digested food, and proteins leak through the walls of the intestines and enter the bloodstream.
Leakage occurs with the upregulation of certain proteins of the zonulin family. Zonulin is responsible for modulating the permeability of tight junctions between epithelial cells on the intestinal wall. With zonulin continuously elevated in response to the presence of toxins, the tight junctions expand and remain loose, creating an open door for inflammatory agents to enter the blood, triggering continuous low-level inflammation and deregulating the immune system.3
Perpetuating a Vicious Inflammatory Cycle
Impaired immune function of activated lymphocytes, phagocytic macrophages, and cytokines leads to a state where regulation of cytokine response is totally lost. This leaves you more susceptible to gut infections caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites.4 MARCoNS, for example, an antibiotic resistant staph, is able to survive in mucous membrane biofilm and produce exotoxins A and B, which cleave MSH5, compounding the MSH deficiency.
With little to no MSH to go around, pituitary production of antidiuretic hormone (ADH) is diminished, causing thirst and frequent urination. As the cycle continues, lack of MSH causes malabsorption, aggravating leaky gut symptoms such as these:
- Chronic or unusual pain from suppressed endorphin production
- Difficulty concentrating
- Skin problems (acne, eczema, rashes)
- Sleep problems from low melatonin production
For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, this is the mechanism at work. Gliadin, a protein found in gluten, releases zonulin, expanding the tight junctions and allowing the gliadin to move through the intestinal wall and into the blood. The immune system tags gluten as a foreign invader and a resulting autoimmune response occurs whenever gluten is ingested.
Sensitivity to any food can result in the same way. If you find yourself reacting to random foods after mold exposure, your practitioner can order an MSH test in addition to other labs to check for leaky gut as well as CIRS. Over 95% of CIRS patients have low MSH.
The Effect of Mycotoxins on the Microbiome
A healthy microbiome can protect the body by binding and metabolizing mycotoxins. But too many mycotoxins alter the proliferation and balance of the gut microbiota.
Intestinal dysbiosis contributes to the leaky gut cycle and allows gut pathogens to take over as beneficial bacteria are eliminated. As a result, the digestive system is less equipped to handle the continued exposure to incoming mycotoxins, producing a buildup in the gut.
This accumulation produces symptoms such as yeast overgrowth/candida infection, food sensitivities, and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
What Can I do to Heal My Gut After Mold Exposure
Healing your gut is an important step in eliminating mycotoxins from your body to reverse the root cause of your chronic condition. You can work to heal your gut by:
- Avoiding water-damaged buildings
- Cutting moldy foods from your diet
- Binding mycotoxins (aka biotoxins) circulating through your system
- Repairing the intestinal barrier
- Restoring a healthy microbiome
Before you begin a detox and healing protocol, however, it’s critical you address the source of your exposure to toxic mold. You may even have to move out of your home or work from a different location for a time if mold caused by water damage needs to be remediated. This is called avoidance. Some people can overcome mold-induced illness by practicing extreme avoidance alone.
Avoiding Mold In Your Diet to Heal Your Gut
Avoiding mold in your diet as well as your environment will help eliminate continued exposure to mycotoxins. The best approach is an anti-inflammatory, low-mold diet, reducing the number of inflammatory agents and mycotoxins entering your gut. While there is a science to adopting a low-mold diet, general guidelines include avoidance of all foods that worsen your symptoms.
If you haven’t made a correlation between what you eat and an increase in your stomach problems, start by eliminating these inflammatory and mold-prone foods from your diet:
- Sugar: Avoid sugar of all kinds, especially refined sugar, as well as dried and high-sugar fresh fruits such as bananas.
- Processed Foods: Canned, bottled, and boxed foods often contain added sugar that feed mold.
- Gluten and Grains: Wheat, oats, barely, corn, and sorghum6 are notorious for mycotoxin contamination.
- Dairy: Cheese of all kinds7 as well as buttermilk, yogurt, and sour cream are also highly susceptible to mold.
- Mold- and Yeast-Prone Foods: Smoked and packaged meats, and alcohol should all be avoided.
So what can you eat while trying to reduce mold in your diet or clear your body of mycotoxins you’ve already been exposed to?
The No-Amylose Diet for Biotoxin Elimination
The no-amylose diet was formulated for those recovering from CIRS/biotoxin illness and may be a beneficial approach if you’re dealing with mold-induced gut issues. The no-amylose diet works to lower Matrix metallopeptidase 9 (MMP-9),8 an enzyme that transports inflammatory agents from the blood to the organs. It also supports leptin levels, which can assist with any excess weight gain resulting from mycotoxin exposure.
Essentially, the no-amylose diet is a low-carbohydrate/low-sugar/no-amylose diet that avoids foods that rapidly cause a blood sugar spike. Simply follow the daily 0-0-2-3 rule:
- 0 sugars (fresh fruit except bananas are allowed)
- 0 amylose
- 2 servings of protein or 6 to 8 ounces
- 3 servings each of vegetables that grow above the ground and fruit (except bananas)
The no-amylose diet is not necessary for all people dealing with mold, but it is great for those wanting to avoid excess insulin in the bloodstream.
Focus on grass-fed meat and poultry, wild-caught seafood, eggs, raw nuts and seeds, non-starchy vegetables that grow above ground (garlic, onion, turnips and squash are okay), organic dairy, all fruits but bananas, healthy oils, spices, and no-sugar condiments.
Ultimately, there isn’t a diet that works best for all people. Your diet should be tailored to your stomach problems, food sensitivities, and bodily preferences. It is best, however, to work with a naturopathic or Shoemaker-certified physician who can coach you based on lab results and evidence-based approaches.
Binding Mycotoxins to Heal Your Gut
The use of binders to remove mycotoxins from the gut is necessary to reverse chronic stomach problems caused by ingestion of toxic mold. Through the process of enterohepatic circulation, mycotoxins are carried from the liver and gallbladder by bile into the small intestine where they are reabsorbed and transported back to the liver, creating a cycle of exposure that causes chronic inflammation and accompanying symptoms.
Binders are non-absorbable agents that attach or “bind” to mycotoxins and carry them out of the body. Since binders cannot be reabsorbed and recycled through the GI system, they move captured mycotoxins into the large intestine to be eliminated through the stool. Popular detox binders include:
- Activated Bamboo or Coconut Charcoal
- Bentonite and Zeolite Clays
- Humic and Fulvic Acids
- Monomethylsilanetriol (MMST) Silica
- Saccharomyces boulardii
Although more research is required, binders likely do not interfere with nutrient absorption. To be safe and maximize effectiveness of meals and medications, use binders one hour before or two hours after you eat or take supplements.
Repairing The Intestinal Barrier and Restoring a Healthy Microbiome
Repairing the intestinal barrier and restoring a healthy microbiome include the steps above. Eliminating incoming toxins while cleaning up the toxic load you already carry within your GI system are precursors to adding anything that supports healing. Once you’ve addressed environment, diet, and binding, however, you can begin to add supportive agents including:
- Butyrate: reduces mucosal inflammation, and reinforces the intestinal barrier9
- Zinc carnosine: stabilizes the gut mucosa10
- Glutamine: Reverses and protects intestinal wall damage
- Colostrum: Repairs damaged intestinal wall cells
- Digestive Enzymes: Assists with fully digesting foods
- Quercetin: Enhances function of the intestinal barrier
- Probiotics: Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Saccharomyces boulardii (also a beneficial binder), Lactobacillus casei, and Bifidobacterium species replenish healthy bacteria
- Herbs that help heal the gut include: marshmallow, ginger, chamomile
Consuming low-mold, anti-inflammatory foods and supplementing with a combination of these products will help support your immune system, repair damage to your intestinal walls, and restore the bacterial balance to your microbiome. Your body will be better suited to take on any residual mycotoxins circulating through your system as well as handle any new toxins from reexposure.
Stomach problems caused by toxic mold can be hard to resolve. Now that you’re more aware of how mycotoxins cause digestive system issues and the methods used to heal your gut, it’s up to you to take the next steps. With avoidance, elimination, and nutrition strategies, reversing your chronic stomach problems caused by toxic mold exposure is possible. After you’ve recovered, you could go back to eating whatever you want, but should you? Let me know where you are on your healing journey and the changes you plan to make to reverse the root cause of your illness and restore your joy in living. Leave a comment below.