SHA Magazine Healthy Nutrition

Mycotoxins: a silent threat to our health

SHA Magazine
February 13, 2024

There is no such thing as a small enemy. The secondary metabolites produced by some fungi and known as mycotoxins are good evidence of this.

Mycotoxins can contaminate a variety of foods, such as grains, fruits and nuts, and their presence can go unnoticed because they lack odour and taste.

Dr Mariel Silva, from the SHA Wellness Clinic’s Well-ageing Medicine unit, explains that these elements are most commonly found in cereals such as maize, wheat and rice, nuts, stored grains and dairy products. “Contamination often occurs during the growing, harvesting, storage and processing of food”, she explains.

There are several classes of mycotoxins, the best known of which are aflatoxins, ochratoxins, fumonisins and trichothecenes. Each has its own characteristics and can affect different systems of the human body.

Dr Silva cites some of the health consequences of mycotoxins. “Their effects can range from minor intestinal disorders to more insidious chronic problems”, adding that “Mycotoxins can trigger immediate problems such as nausea and vomiting or acute abdominal pain, which can occur within hours of eating contaminated food”.

The real problem, according to the expert, would be to develop chronic toxicity by being continuously exposed to high levels of mycotoxins over a long period of time. “This could lead to long-term health problems, including liver damage, suppression of the immune system and probably a higher risk of cancer,” she explains. In addition, she reminds us that mycotoxins also affect farm animals consuming contaminated feed and can affect the quality of derived products.

One of the most novel approaches being studied is the relationship of mycotoxins to endocrine disruption mechanisms. “Some research suggests that some mycotoxins may have an impact on the central nervous system, including the hypothalamus, via the olfactory bulb. This process could alter hormone regulation”, explains Dr Silva.

Another relationship being studied is the effect of mycotoxins on the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis by stress hormones such as cortisol. This mechanism could alter stress response and hormone homeostasis.

It is believed that mycotoxins may alter the gut microbiota and thus affect digestion, nutrient absorption and immune system regulation. Finally, its relationship to unwanted autoimmune responses is being investigated, as this could be a consequence of persistent inflammation leading to an exaggerated activation of the immune system.

“Not everyone is equally susceptible to mycotoxins. Factors such as genetics, general health, diet and cumulative exposure over time all play a role”, says Dr Silva.

Treatment is usually aimed at avoiding exposure to mycotoxins, improving lifestyle and lifestyle habits, and stimulating the organs of the body such as the intestine, kidneys, urinary and respiratory systems. She notes that some studies suggest that a healthy microbiota is capable of eliminating mycotoxins on its own.




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