Have you undergone medical treatment for mold illness, but still struggle with chronic inflammation, digestive issues, or cognitive dysfunction? If this sounds like you, it may be time to take a closer look at your nutrition, as the foods you eat can either help or hinder your recovery from mold illness. Read on to learn how optimal nutrition can aid in mold illness recovery by supporting detoxification, restoring gut health, and quenching inflammation caused by toxic mold exposure.
Exposure to toxic mold is more common than you might think. In this article, nutritionist Lindsay Christensen discusses the foods that can help your recovery and those that could hinder your progress. #nutrition #optimalhealth
What Is Mold Illness?
If you are reading this article, I’m guessing you’re familiar with the topic of mold illness. However, in case you aren’t, let’s do a brief refresher.
Mold illness is an inflammatory illness caused by exposure to toxic indoor molds, their harmful by-products, and other microbial toxins in water-damaged buildings.
Molds are fungal organisms that grow in damp environments, preferentially feeding off of cellulose-based materials, including many of the materials we use to construct buildings! Mycotoxins are secondary metabolites produced by mold that have harmful health effects. Molds also produce volatile organic compounds, gaseous substances that give it its characteristic musty smell. Chris has previously addressed mold illness in his article “Mold Illness: What It Is, 5 Common Misconceptions, and Prevention” and in his podcasts with mold illness specialist Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker and indoor environmental expert Mike Schrantz.
The mainstream medical community has been slow to catch on to the serious threat posed by mold exposure. However, given the number of water-damaged buildings in the United States, mold exposure likely affects a significant portion of the population to varying degrees. It is a great mimicker, and may be misdiagnosed as asthma, chronic fatigue, or mental illness. (2, 3)
Fortunately, awareness of mold illness is spreading in the Functional Medicine community, and effective treatments are available. However, nutrition is largely missing in the discussion surrounding mold treatment. As a nutritionist working with clients exposed to mold, and having been impacted by mold illness myself, I have a unique interest in the applications of nutrition for aiding in recovery.
How Can Nutrition Help with Mold Illness Recovery?
Mold and mycotoxin exposure adversely impacts many biochemical pathways, tissues, and organs in the body; this is why it causes such a messy slew of symptoms. However, the good news is that many of the dysfunctional changes caused by mold exposure can also be influenced positively by nutrition. Let’s discuss each of these changes, and how nutrition can help, in turn.
Immune Dysfunction and Inflammation
Mold exposure triggers a powerful immune response, releasing a flood of inflammatory signaling molecules. (4, 5) These inflammatory molecules are intended to protect your body from mold, but, if left unchecked, can cause damage to your DNA, brain, gut, and liver. Neuroinflammation is one of the most common features of mold illness, and may promote brain fog, depression, and cognitive dysfunction. Mycotoxins also suppress the immune system, and may even reactivate latent infections. (6, 7) Chronic mold exposure also impairs the immune response to pathogens, increasing the risk of opportunistic infections. (8)
In vitro research indicates that the immune cells of people exposed to mold release higher amounts of the inflammatory signaling molecules interleukin-1 alpha (IL-1alpha), IL-12, RANTES, tumor necrosis factor-beta, and vascular endothelial growth factor compared to the cells of people with no history of mold exposure. However, according to the authors, epigenetic mechanisms can counteract the inflammatory activity caused by chronic mold exposure. (9) Nutrition is a potent epigenetic intervention that can support immunity and counteract inflammation, and should be an integral part of any protocol designed to treat mold illness.
Mold Disrupts the Microbiome
Research indicates that the gut microbiome is severely disrupted by mold and mycotoxins. These substances upset the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, knocking down beneficial bacteria and promoting the growth of opportunistic and pathogenic microbes. (10) Fortunately, nutrition can also help here by replenishing your gut with helpful probiotic bacteria and providing the substrate—prebiotics—that these good guys need to grow!
Mold Exposure Depletes Glutathione
Glutathione is an antioxidant and signaling molecule that plays essential roles throughout the body. It combats free radical damage caused by exposure to environmental toxins, such as mold, and regulates immune function. Exposure to mycotoxins depletes glutathione, impairing your antioxidant and immune defenses. (11) A variety of nutrient-dense foods naturally boost your body’s glutathione levels, and may counteract the glutathione depletion caused by mold illness. (12, 13)
Mycotoxins Increase the Body’s Toxic Burden
The term “toxic burden” refers to the load of harmful compounds, both natural and man-made, that have accumulated in your body at a given point in time.
Mold and mycotoxins are perfect examples of natural compounds that add to your toxic burden. While your body has systems in place for eliminating these compounds, chronic mold exposure can quickly overwhelm your detoxification pathways, increasing your toxic burden. Furthermore, many mycotoxins are lipophilic, meaning they readily accumulate in fatty tissues of the body and are not easily removed unless measures are taken to provoke their release. (14)
When they are not nestled inside fat tissue, mycotoxins hitch rides on bile acids and circulate between the small intestine and liver in a process called the enterohepatic circulation. The enterohepatic circulation is efficient, recirculating bile acids anywhere between four and 12 times per day. (15) If bile acids are not regularly excreted via the stool, mycotoxins continue to recirculate and cause damage to your body. (16) Binding agents such as cholestyramine are used in the medical treatment of mold illness to inhibit the enterohepatic circulation. However, fibrous foods also inhibit this process, binding mycotoxins and ushering them out of the body. Foods that stimulate your detoxification pathways, promote bile flow, and bind mycotoxins are, thus, a crucial part of mold illness recovery.
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Foods to Avoid if You Have Mold Illness
If you are working to recover from mold illness, the first thing you should do with your diet is eliminate processed, refined foods. Preclinical research has found that a processed diet worsens the neuroinflammatory effects of mold. (17) Along those lines, I recommend avoiding four categories of inflammatory foods:
- Acellular carbohydrates and refined sugar
- Industrial seed oils
In individuals with a genetic susceptibility to celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten consumption triggers a chronic inflammatory response. (18) Since eating gluten only adds to the inflammatory burden caused by mold, I recommend that people with mold illness eliminate gluten from their diets. (19) However, don’t switch out all your baked goods and cereal with gluten-free alternatives. Gluten-free bread, bagels, cereal, etc. are often made with refined rice and corn flours, which may be contaminated with mycotoxins and promote the growth of inflammatory gut bacteria. (20, 21)
Acellular Carbohydrates and Refined Sugar
The standard American diet is heavy in acellular carbohydrates, carbohydrate-containing foods that lack intact cells. Acellular carbohydrate foods have a high carbohydrate density, promoting the growth of inflammatory gut bacteria and fueling yeast overgrowth. Acellular carbs are, therefore, less than ideal for people with mold illness who already have perturbed gut bacteria. (22)
I recommend that my clients affected by mold avoid acellular carbs and refined sugars to keep inflammation at bay and support their gut health, with one exception: raw honey. In animal research, substituting refined sugars with honey has been found to improve the health of the gut microbiota and inhibit the harmful effects of mycotoxins. (23)
Mold exposure triggers the release of histamine from mast cells; histamine mediates the vasodilation and inflammation, and resultant swelling and redness, associated with allergic reactions. In my nutrition practice, I’ve found that dairy consumption tends to trigger a histamine response and inflammation in individuals exposed to mold. Grain-fed dairy can become contaminated with mycotoxins because mycotoxins present in moldy cattle feed pass into cows’ milk upon consumption. (24)
If you’re struggling with mold illness, I recommend doing a trial elimination of all dairy for three weeks; you may notice that you feel better without it. However, if dairy sits well with you, I think full-fat, fermented, grass-fed dairy products can be perfectly healthy additions to your diet.
Industrial Seed Oils
Chris has spoken at length about the inflammatory, unhealthy effects of eating industrial seed oils such as:
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
These oils increase the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the body, triggering inflammation. Consuming these oils may exacerbate mold-induced inflammation, so I recommend keeping them out of your diet. (25)
Moldy Foods You Should Avoid
Once you’ve removed inflammatory foods from your diet, it’s time to focus on another aspect of mold exposure—mold and mycotoxins in foods. Unfortunately, mold doesn’t just grow in water-damaged buildings; it also grows on specific crops, contaminating our food supply. I recommend avoiding the most heavily mold-contaminated foods, including:
- Meat and milk from grain-fed animals
- Dried fruits
- Conventional coffee
- Wine and beer
Furthermore, there are “gray-area” foods that may be contaminated with mold and mycotoxins, but that you can also find healthy, mold-free versions of:
- Nuts and seeds
Mold and mycotoxins are common contaminants in whole grains such as: (26)
Several of the earliest recorded examples of food poisoning have been traced back to peoples’ consumption of mold-contaminated grains. (27) While the European Union and United States regulate the levels of mycotoxins allowed in grains intended for human consumption, these regulations may not reflect levels of consumption conducive to optimal health. Furthermore, climate change is predicted to increase the levels of mycotoxins in corn and wheat because warm, humid conditions foster mold growth. (28, 29)
Unfortunately, organic grains aren’t superior to conventional grains when it comes to their mycotoxin concentrations. (30) However, probiotic bacteria used in fermentation can reduce mycotoxin levels in grains. (31, 32) I recommend first doing a 30-day grain-free “reset,” after which you can try incorporating small amounts of gluten-free fermented grains into your diet.
Meat, Milk, and Eggs from Grain-Fed Animals
The animals we raise for their meat, milk, and eggs are primarily fed grains. Mold and mycotoxin contamination is a big problem in these grain-based animal feeds; when animals eat these contaminated feeds, mycotoxins distribute into their meat, eggs, and milk. (33) When we eat products from grain-fed animals, we thus inadvertently end up consuming some mycotoxins.
Cheese and Cured Meats
While full-fat, fermented, grass-fed dairy products may be fine for some individuals affected by mold, there is an exception to this advice: cheese. The cheese-making process increases the amount of mycotoxins in soft and hard cheeses. (34)
Cured meats such as salami and pepperoni are another source of mold, as they are intentionally made with mold cultures. You may want to temporarily avoid these foods if you are sensitive to mold. (35)
Mold loves gobbling up sugars, and fruits are an excellent source of sugar. Unfortunately, small amounts of mold on fresh fruits may be exacerbated by the industrial drying process, with the resulting dried fruits harboring potentially unhealthy levels of mold and mycotoxins. (36) If you still want to have dried fruit as a snack here or there, I recommend dehydrating your own fruit at home using fresh, mold-free fruit and in a setting with low humidity that will hinder mold growth.
Peanuts are frequently contaminated with aflatoxin, a hepatotoxic and DNA-damaging mycotoxin. (37) If you’ve been exposed to mold, I recommend that you avoid peanuts and instead eat tree nuts such as almonds and walnuts.
This may come as a surprise, but coffee is actually one of the most mold-contaminated foods in the average person’s diet! Coffee beans have been found to harbor significant levels of mycotoxins, likely due to the hot, humid conditions in which coffee beans are grown, stored, and processed. (38) Fortunately, we have a solution: there are several brands of coffee available now that are verified to be mold-free, including Bulletproof upgraded coffee and Kion coffee.
Wine and Beer
The fermentation process used to make wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages can facilitate mold growth. (39, 40) Fortunately, as with coffee, there is a healthy alternative for mold-sensitive wine lovers. Dry Farms Wines offers wines that are lab-tested and verified to be free of pesticides.
Identify the “Gray-Area” Foods That Work for You
Several “gray-area” foods may be contaminated with mold and mycotoxins, but are not always a problem. I recommend doing some self-experimentation to determine which “gray-area” foods work for you.
Nuts and Seeds
I recommend entirely avoiding peanuts (which are actually legumes, not nuts) if you have mold illness. Other nuts and seeds, including walnuts, almonds, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and cashews, can harbor mold, but I’ve found them to generally be well-tolerated. (41) To enjoy nuts without concerns about mold contamination, I recommend buying the freshest nuts and seeds you can find, preferably from the refrigerated section of your local health food store.
Some culinary spices have been found to harbor mold and mycotoxins, likely because many spices are grown in humid tropical areas prone to mold growth. (42) However, many spices also have beneficial antifungal and anti-inflammatory effects, so I don’t recommend removing them from your diet. As long as you are buying organic spices from a reputable source, I’m not worried about the issue of mold/mycotoxin contamination here. My recommendations are to avoid buying spices in bulk and to always buy from a reputable, organic brand.
Black tea and pu-erh tea are heavily fermented and can represent significant sources of mold. Pu-erh tea is typically “matured” for dozens of years via a method called wet piling; this process “welcomes fungal contamination” and creates a reservoir for mold and mycotoxin growth. (43) Personally, I’ve tried several brands of pu-erh tea, and each time I have noticed a very moldy taste and smell. Thus, I recommend avoiding pu-erh tea if you are mold-sensitive. You may also need to avoid black tea, which is extensively fermented.
Organic green tea goes through a milder fermentation process than pu-erh and black teas, and contains phytochemicals that protect against mycotoxins, so I recommend including it in your diet. (44) Pique Tea may be a good solution for those who can’t give up their tea but are sensitive to mold and mycotoxins. Pique Tea tests their teas for mold contamination, something that I haven’t seen any other tea company do before.
Like coffee beans, cacao beans may become contaminated with mold and mycotoxins because they are grown, stored, and processed in tropical areas. (45) I haven’t yet found a brand of organic chocolate that tests for mold or mycotoxin levels in their products, so if you’d like to keep dark chocolate in your diet, you may need to do some self-experimentation to find a brand that works for you.
The Mold Illness Diet: Eat Anti-Inflammatory, Nutrient-Dense Foods
Now that we’ve discussed the foods you should remove, or practice caution with, in your recovery diet, let’s talk about the nutrient-dense foods you can eat!
Pastured and Wild-Caught Animal Products
Allowing animals to graze on pasture reduces the mycotoxin levels in their meat and milk. Therefore, by eating pasture-raised meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy (if you tolerate dairy), you can minimize your consumption of mycotoxins. While certain plants in a pasture can harbor mold, the amounts consumed are likely much less than those consumed by an exclusively grain-fed animal. (46)
Furthermore, cows with healthy rumens transform mycotoxins into less harmful metabolites in their digestive tracts, reducing the risk of meat and milk contamination. Pastured cows have healthy rumens because they consume a species-appropriate diet, whereas grain-fed cows suffer from unhealthy microbial alterations in their rumens. This is just one more reason why it is important to source pastured meat. (47)
In addition to eating pastured meat and poultry, I recommend consuming bone broth, gelatin, or collagen peptides because these are rich sources of glycine, an amino acid needed for glutathione production. (48)
Aim to eat at least three to four servings of non-starchy vegetables per day, particularly cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous veggies contain phytochemicals that upregulate the Nrf2 pathway, an anti-inflammatory signaling pathway that produces glutathione. (49)
I also recommend eating bitter vegetables every day, such as:
- Dandelion leaves
Bitter vegetables contain phytochemicals that promote bile flow, and may thus aid in the elimination of bile acid-bound mycotoxins. Dandelion also activates cellular receptors crucial for detoxification. (50, 51)
Starchy Vegetables and Whole Fruit
I’ve found that most people affected by mold do just fine eating one to two servings of starchy vegetables and whole fruit per day, such as:
- Sweet potato
- Winter squash
These foods contain fiber that binds bile acids and may inhibit the enterohepatic circulation of mycotoxins. (52) Apples and citrus fruits, with their high soluble fiber content, form a viscous matrix that inhibits the reabsorption of bile acids in the small intestine. If you have severe gut dysbiosis, you may need to further limit your carb intake and obtain more of your fiber from non-starchy vegetables.
Certain probiotic bacteria degrade mycotoxins, aiding your body in its recovery from mold illness. The probiotic bacterium Lactobacillus casei Shirota binds aflatoxin, while Lactobacillus plantarum and Bifidobacteria inhibit intestinal damage caused by mycotoxins and bind mycotoxins, respectively. (53, 54, 55) Kefir grains, clusters of beneficial microorganisms held together by polysaccharides that are used to make the fermented beverage kefir, have been found to adsorb mycotoxins. (56)
I recommend adding at least one serving of fermented food to your diet each day. Try:
- Raw sauerkraut
- Coconut milk or almond milk yogurt
If you tolerate dairy, try full-fat, grass-fed yogurt or kefir. Minimize or avoid cheeses, cured meats, and kombucha; you can reintroduce these further down the line in your recovery. (57)
Prebiotics and Polyphenols
Eating probiotic foods to restore your gut health is essential, but don’t forget to feed your beneficial mycotoxin-degrading gut bacteria with prebiotic foods. Some of my favorite prebiotic foods are:
- Green banana flour
Polyphenols are phytochemicals found in plant foods that offer both antioxidant and prebiotic properties. Two polyphenols, in particular—quercetin and resveratrol—have been found to protect the body against mycotoxin-induced cellular damage. (58, 59) For a hefty dose of polyphenols, try:
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Purple sweet potato
- Green tea
Living or working in a mold-contaminated environment can cause fungal colonization of the gut due to inhalation and inadvertent swallowing of airborne mold spores. Consuming natural antifungal foods may help restore a healthy microbial balance and combat opportunistic yeast infections that frequently occur in individuals exposed to mold. Try including one or more servings per day of the following foods:
- Coconut oil (60)
- Garlic (61)
- Basil, oregano, and thyme (62)
- Ceylon cinnamon (63)
- Turmeric (64, 65)
- Raw honey (66)
Last but not least, given the significant impact of mold exposure on brain inflammation, I recommend incorporating as many neuroprotective nutrients into your diet as possible.
Phospholipid DHA is a unique form of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier, supporting neurological health and cognitive function. Wild salmon roe is by far the most abundant dietary source of phospholipid DHA, though moderate amounts can also be found in other wild-caught seafood, such as salmon. (67) I also recommend eating whole eggs, as egg yolks are an excellent source of choline, a B vitamin-like compound that is crucial for brain health. (68)
Finally, plant foods rich in sulforaphane, such as cruciferous vegetables, and polyphenols, such as blueberries, activate antioxidant signaling pathways that lower brain inflammation and promote brain healing. (69, 70)
Are you dealing with mold illness and looking for support? Do you want to address your recovery from all angles, including through nutrition and lifestyle changes? At the California Center for Functional Medicine, we offer just this type of approach, and can help you in your recovery. Find out more about CCFM.