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What Are Mycotoxins And Why Are They Bad For Me?

Mycotoxins are low weight natural products produced by filamentous fungi. These compounds are lumped together because they can produce disease or death in human beings. Other compounds produced can affects plants (phytotoxins) or bacteria (antibiotics).

The classification of these toxins is difficult due do the wide variety of effects and type of compounds. There have been a variety of attempts to classify and organize them, but given that different fields of science organize them in unique ways, the field is still somewhat vague. An overall term for the diseases caused by these toxins is called “mycotoxicosis”.

Human Health

Health effects from mycotoxins can be defined as either acute or chronic. Acute effects are those that occur quickly or in one exposure and chronic effects are those that show up after a low dose exposure over a long period of time. Differentiating the two is often difficult, but indoor air quality can be affected by either.

Acute exposure is often easier to detect, but is still not always obvious. Symptoms of acute exposure can be as obvious as what happened to St. Anthony’s Fire sufferers in medieval times (burning sensations, hallucinations, vomiting, insanity), but often it will be far less remarkable (coughing, headaches, sneezing, nausea). Death can result from exposure, but it very rare in developed countries in modern times.

Chronic effects are more difficult to determine given that it takes a long time for symptoms to show up. These can include cancer, kidney toxicity,and immune suppression.

Some Important Mycotoxins

Aflatoxins

Aflatoxin primarily affect the liver in animals in either an acute or chronic manner. Acute aflatoxicosis can lead to death while chronic exposure can result in immune suppression and cancer.

These toxins are particularly associated with Aspergillus flavus. This fungus is often found in cereal crops, especially during times of drought stress.

The most important aspect of aflatocxin is the propensity of the toxin to induce cancer if the exposure is chronic. There is extensive scientific data that presents a compelling case for the association. The problem tends to be centered around developing countries as the regulations around growing and storing cereal products are lax or nonexistent.

Ergot Alkaloids

Ergot refers to a “cocktail” of compounds produced by Claviceps sp. and is one of the most infamous “diseases” of antiquity. Ergots (Claviceps sclerotia) often grow on cereal plants and can missed during harvest. If the compounds enter the food stream, they can cause widespread poisoning. There is one theory that ergot poisoning may have been at the root of the Salem witchcraft affair.‚Äč

The symptoms of ergotism are classified as either gangrenous or convulsive. The gangrenous form affects the blood supply to the extremities while convulsive ergotism affects the central nervous system. The classic symptoms are close to that of LSD, which isn’t surprising given that LSD was derived from the ergot alkaloids. It has also been used to produce drugs to assist in childbirth and alleviate symptoms of Parkinsons.