Using a Pulse Test to Identify Problematic Foods and Environments

I used a wrist cuff like this one to easily and quickly get readings on my own blood pressure and heart rate for avoidance purposes.

I used a wrist cuff like this one to easily and quickly get readings on my own blood pressure and heart rate for avoidance purposes.

August 11, 2014

By Lisa Petrison

Very frequently, new mold avoiders ask me how they can go about quickly determining whether a particular building, a particular outdoor environment or a particular object is above tolerance for them.

In addition, when people find out that avoiding certain foods made a big difference in my health even when I was living in the moldy house, they often wonder aloud how to easily find out which foods might be a problem for them.

With regard to both food avoidance and environmental avoidance, it’s been my experience that the monitoring of pulse rate can be really helpful.

Monitoring of blood pressure also can provide useful information, in my experience.

Although the use of a heart rate monitor has been fairly often discussed amongst ME/CFS patients for gauging appropriate activity levels (with the goal of preventing post-exertional  malaise), it has to my observation been used much less frequently with regard to monitoring reactions for avoidance purposes.

I thus thought that I would give a quick overview of my experiences as well as some comments on the topic.

Food Reactivity Testing

Less than a year after first meeting the criteria for ME/CFS (back in 1996), I made my way to an environmental medicine physician.

Of course, he didn’t bring up the concept of toxic mold, but he did suggest that food sensitivities might be an issue for me.

So I got a blood test done. The results suggested that I was allergic to about 45 different foods.

I tried avoiding all of them for a while, didn’t feel like most of them made much difference, and so decided to consider whether there might be a more accurate method of testing.

The Pulse Test 1

This book on how to use pulse rate testing to identify food sensitivities was published in 1956.

I read a lot about elimination diets, but the whole process seemed so complex that I gave up on it before concluding much more than that a few foods that I already suspected were problems (dairy and eggs) indeed were worth worth avoiding.

Then I found Dr. Arthur Coca’s The Pulse Test, which explained a simple way to gauge whether the body is reacting in a negative way to food.

I found it remarkably helpful at pinpointing foods that actually did turn out to be problems for me.

Food avoidance thus quickly became (along with Klonopin and candida control) one of my most effective treatments, prior to my learning about toxic mold.

Testing a Food

Coca’s book is now available free in PDF format.

The test is really simple.  Here’s how I did it.

1.  In the morning, before eating anything (but after getting out of bed and moving around a bit), I took my pulse.  (I always had a hard time doing this manually and so used a blood pressure cuff.)

2. I then ate a substantial portion of the food being tested. I ate nothing else for the next 90 minutes (until the test was over).

3. Right after consuming the food, I took my pulse again.

4. I waited a half an hour, then took my pulse again.

5. I waited another half an hour (until a total of 60 minutes had passed since eating the food), then took my pulse again.

6. I waited an additional half hour (until a total of 90 minutes had passed since eating the food), then took my pulse again.

I was surprised to find that my pulse jumped dramatically for certain foods — for instance, from 65 bpm to 100-110 bpm. Other foods caused almost no jump at all.

Note that for me at the time, being  a bit more active by moving around the house rather than lying in bed caused only a small jump. “Getting upset” for whatever reason caused almost no jump at all.


fresh tropical fruits and juice

Back when I was living in the moldy house, pulse testing suggested that I was reactive to virtually all tropical fruits.


My Food Reactivities

Over a period of many months, I tested a wide variety of foods (in many cases, the same food multiple times).

The list of foods that I ended up avoiding looked something like this:  dairy (except butter), corn, eggs, citrus (all kinds), pineapple, coconut, bananas, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, cashews, walnuts, peanuts, chocolate, coffee, beer and wine.

(I also avoided sugar, maple syrup and honey scrupulously for many years, but that was for candida control rather than reactivities.)

Avoiding these foods made a major difference in my quality of life. That was a motivation to be really careful about avoiding them (almost as careful as I later became about mold avoidance).

Food avoidance certainly didn’t make me totally well, and it certainly didn’t stop my health from declining dramatically over the subsequent decade as I continued to live unknowingly in the moldy house.

But in the short run, it made a noticeable positive improvement in my functioning.


While I prefer grassfed beef, mycotoxins tend to be present in pretty low levels in all lean meat, the literature suggests.

While I personally prefer grass-fed beef, mycotoxins tend to be present in pretty low levels in all lean meat, the literature suggests.


Thoughts on My Reactivities

Looking back at the list of foods that I avoided, I would guess that my issues with all those berries and tropical fruits actually were reactions to the foods themselves rather than to a contaminant.

For all the others though, I think it’s quite possible that the reason that I was reacting to them was because of the presence of mycotoxins or other contaminants (such as glyphosate, aka Roundup) rather than because of the food itself.

Certainly I believe that to possibly be the case for the corn, nuts, chocolate, coffee, beer and wine (all of which — when sold in the U.S. — tend to be have high amounts of mycotoxin contamination).

My recent reading of the peer-reviewed literature makes me think that my lifetime ambivalence toward eggs might have a mycotoxin component too, since factory farmed chickens tend to be given very moldy feed and since mycotoxins from the feed do end up in the eggs.

Milk from cows given moldy feed also is very heavily mycotoxin-contaminated (mostly associated with the casein, which would explain why butter was less of an issue for me than other dairy products).

On the other hand, mycotoxins tend to be present in relatively low amounts in lean meat even when the animal’s diet has been heavy in mycotoxins, which could explain why I always was able to tolerate even conventional meat pretty well.

(I did tend to avoid the fat back then, which was a good thing since toxins that are taken in tend to accumulate in the animal’s fat. Only if the animals are raised unusually pristinely should eating animal fat — which I do now — be considered a good idea.)

Obviously a big missing item from my list was gluten.  I tried a whole bunch of times to scrupulously avoid gluten for extended periods of time and then to reintroduce it, but it never gave me much of a pulse jump and it never seemed like I felt any different as a result of avoiding vs. consuming it.

In retrospect, this is a little surprising since wheat can be contaminated with mycotoxins. I occasionally do react to bread now (likely — since it’s not consistent — to contaminants rather than to the wheat).

I suspect that the wheat that I was testing at the time was relatively good quality and thus that it may have been less contaminated than some wheat products.


Ten years ago (when I was still living in the moldy house), McCann's oatmeal tested as okay for me (while organic Whole Foods oatmeal did not).

Ten years ago (when I was still living in the moldy house), McCann’s oatmeal tested as okay for me (while organic Whole Foods oatmeal did not).


Organic May Not Mean Safe

Once upon a time, I unthinkingly assumed that if a product was marked “organic,” that meant that it was going to be relatively free of poisonous contaminants and therefore safe for me to eat.

What I have learned over time is that this is not necessarily the case.

For instance, back when I was living unknowingly in the moldy house and doing a lot of pulse testing for foods, it seemed that I was fine with oatmeal. I usually ate non-organic John McCann’s oatmeal from Ireland.

Then I decided that I would try to clean up my diet a bit and bought some organic Whole Foods oatmeal. As it turned out though, I reacted strongly to the organic oatmeal and ended up throwing away the whole box.

At the time, this was really perplexing.  Now that I have learned about mycotoxins though, it makes perfect sense.

European food manufacturers must keep amounts of a variety of mycotoxins — including trichothecenes, aflatoxin and ochratoxin — below certain levels. In the U.S. systems, both conventional and organic, the only regulated mycotoxin is aflatoxin, and the levels for that are far more lenient than in Europe. 

So insofar as I was reacting to the mycotoxins in the oatmeal rather than the oatmeal itself, it makes sense that the Irish oatmeal (though not organic) might have been a safer choice for me.

In monitoring my food reactions over the past couple of years, I have found repeatedly that inexpensive organic packaged goods can be just as bad or sometimes much worse than conventional food in terms of mycotoxin presence.

Organic farming is expensive, and so if an organic product is priced inexpensively, that means that somebody necessarily cut some costs somewhere along the line. And the easiest way for organic food manufacturers to do that is to use moldy ingredients.

A popular inexpensive organic bread was likely the most problematic food product that I’ve tried during the past few years, for instance.

Since I can eat a variety of quality wheat products without apparent problem (e.g. pretty much anything from Italy seems fine), I am having a hard time blaming the gluten in that bread. Contamination with mycotoxins seems a much more likely culprit.

I also have relatively recently learned that “organic” does not mean free of other contaminants besides mycotoxins.

For instance, U.S. rice – including organic rice – often is highly contaminated with arsenic, due at least in part to the fact that factory farmed chickens are fed arsenic to kill pathogens. The arsenic-contaminated chicken manure is then used to fertilize crops, including ones that are then labeled as organic.

Although rice is particularly apt to absorb heavy metals from the soil, other crops have the ability to do so as well.



The literature suggests that eggs tend to be especially contaminated by mycotoxins, and that may be part of why I still tend to eat relatively few of them.


My Current Diet

For a little while after I started mold avoidance, my food reactivities actually seemed to go up.  I even started feeling like scrupulously avoiding all wheat was a little beneficial.

But somewhere during that first year, all my food reactivities died down considerably, to the point where I started eating foods (like strawberries) that I hadn’t had in years.

More recently, I have concluded that I now can eat basically anything without negative consequences, as long as it is a really pristine version of the product with no man-made or mold-made chemicals in it.

Admittedly I’m not really enthusiastic about eggs even now, but if they are really high-quality, I seem okay with them as well.


Cyanobacteria growing on Boca Reservoir, a source of drinkng water for the Tahoe/Reno area.

Cyanobacteria growing on Boca Reservoir, a source of drinkng water for the Tahoe/Reno area. Photo credit: Erik Johnson.


Food Testing Tips

For those interested in experimenting with pulse testing in order to attempt to identify food reactivities, here are some thoughts.

* Coca recommends that people start out by taking their pulse several times a day (upon rising, before each meal, 30/60/90 minutes after each meal and before retiring), in order to get a preliminary sense of how it varies over time.

* Coca suggests that if the pulse jumps more than 6 beats per minute (bpm) at any point during the 90 minutes after eating the food being tested, that is an indication that the person is hyperreactive to the food. I would guess that a particularly high jump would indicate a food that was particularly problematic, based on my experiences.

* Especially for people who can have negative reactions to even a small amount of activity, I would guess that it may be preferable to sit or lie in one place for the duration of the test, rather than moving around in between readings.

* If you choose, you can eliminate a questionable food from the diet for a period of time prior to the test (for instance, for several days or even several weeks). You also could stick to a really clean diet of foods that you feel confident that you can tolerate prior to the test. However, my own experience suggested that neither of those was necessary and that the test worked well regardless of what I had been eating the day before.

* Coca suggests that if a food tests okay after an extended period of avoidance, adding it back in on a rotation basis may be possible. I decided not to add any of my own problem foods back in on a regular basis though, until long after I started pursuing environmental mold avoidance. Looking back, considering that most of my own food reactivities may have been triggered by mold contamination rather than by the actual foods, this seems like it may have been a good idea.

* I would suggest not drinking anything but good spring water while taking the test. Many locations get cyanobacteria-contaminated water from rivers or lakes (and don’t use filtration for these toxins), and people with “mystery illness” can react to these toxins in the drinking water. Obviously, this has the potential of throwing off the results of the test with regard to determining whether foods are a problem.

* Conceivably the test could be used to try to assess whether reactivity to drinking water is occuring. However, in many locations the water coming through the tap is only sporadically contaminated, meaning that the water being tolerable on one day may not guarantee that it always is going to be tolerable. Bottled water from a spring may be a better choice for reactive people living in these places.


The Roosevelt County Courthouse in Portales, NM, a building recently reported in the news media to have a toxic mold problem. Many government buildings are poorly maintained and thus places to be cautious about when entering.

The Roosevelt County Courthouse in Portales, NM, a building recently reported in the news media to have a toxic mold problem. Many government buildings are poorly maintained and thus places to be cautious about when entering.


Environmental Testing

Probably because I had done so much pulse testing with regard to foods, I started experimenting with it within the first month or two of doing environmental mold avoidance (back in 2008). I found it to be, if anything, even more helpful than the use of it for foods.

One issue with starting mold avoidance is that it usually takes people quite a bit of practice before they can quickly and confidently determine whether they are reacting to an environment.

But some buildings are going to be bad enough that you don’t want to stay in them for more than 30 seconds (and preferably not even that long).

Monitoring pulse rates provides an objective tool to allow mold avoiders to quickly realize when they are being exposed to environments that are causing their body to go into an alarm state and thus make a quick departure (and preferably decontaminate).

In addition, by noticing the symptoms that they are feeling when their pulse rates jump, people can become more skilled at using their own reactions to quickly identify when they are being exposed to problematic toxins even if they don’t take their pulse.

Some new mold avoiders also find that they are more inclined to take action as a result of seeing objective evidence that they have experienced a physiological change than they are with subjective symptoms that can be more easily dismissed as “that’s not so bad.”

Often people who are monitoring their heart rate will use a unit with a chest strap, so that they don’t have to pause their activity to take their pulse.

I ended up using a wrist cuff that would automatically take both blood pressure as well as heart rate with one push of a button, and I subsequently found that the blood pressure reading was correlated with environmental toxicity as well.

Back in the moldy house, my pulse was usually a pretty normal 65-75 at rest. My blood pressure was extremely low — often as low as 80/50 untreated, though with a lot of Florinef it was usually more like 90/60.


Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ. Despite my seeing mold and smelling mold, this building tested fine for me in 2008, and I experienced no negative consequences from my visit there.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ (2009). Despite my seeing mold and smelling mold, this building tested fine for me and I did not notice any negative consequences from my visit there.


After about six months of avoidance (still living in the Chicago area), my blood pressure was much more normal (e.g. 105/65). My pulse was still usually in the 65-80 bpm range, depending on what I was doing.

As long as I was avoiding mold, normal activity didn’t usually make a big difference in terms of either of these measures. (Granted, I wasn’t doing any strenuous exercise at the time.)

On the other hand, entering a bad environment would make a huge difference.

For instance, at one point I visited the home of an ME/CFS patient and was astounded to find that the place was more problematic than anywhere that I’d been except for my own abandoned house. My pulse jumped to 155 bpm and my blood pressure to 165/95.

I ended up sitting on the back porch for a while until the numbers normalized, then tried going inside and then back outside several more times. Each time I re-entered the home, the jump in bp and hr was just as dramatic.

This patient said that there had indeed been a black mold problem in the apartment and that the renovation when it was discovered indeed had been at the same time as a health crash, but that it didn’t seem like it should be an issue any more since it had “already been fixed.” Obviously that was not good enough for me!


Damien Blenkinsopp (right) tries out a device with his biohacking mentor, Dave Asprey of the Bulletproof Executive.

Dave Asprey of the Bulletproof Executive (left) with Damien Blenkinsopp. Photo credit: Bulletproof Executive.


Environmental Testing Tips

* As was the case with me, the use of a heart rate or blood pressure monitor to gauge reactions to environments most likely is going to be really effective only after people have been fairly clear of bad environments for a while.

Although these tools still might be useful for picking up on environments that are even worse than the usual one, they are not going to be able to provide much information about whether that usual environment is good or bad until people go to a better place for long enough for their systems to settle down.

* Especially insofar as people are not pursuing avoidance effectively, even a little activity may cause heart rate to jump by a large amount.

If activity intolerance seems to be an issue, sitting down for a few minutes before taking a measurement may be helpful when trying to gauge the relative problem of various environments.

* In order for a pulse or bp test to work, the body needs to recognize the environment as a threat and react to it.

I have found my own body occasionally to not react much to a particular environment when first encountering it, but nonetheless be strongly affected by the exposure later on. Therefore, a lack of increase in hr or bp shouldn’t necessarily be taken to mean that an environment is not problematic.

* Especially when attempting to gauge a particular location or building for “biohacking” purposes, using a variety of measurements may be helpful.

For instance, here is a detailed write-up of how mold avoider Damien Blenkinsopp used various tracking devices to measure his body’s responses during a recent trip to Death Valley.

More information from Damien is available on his website, Biohacked.


Other Uses

Once people get used to monitoring their own reactions to environments or to foods using a heart rate monitor or blood pressure cuff, it’s easy to consider other ways in which those monitoring devices may be used.

For instance, a few years ago I decided to give Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN) a try.

Shortly after I took the first pill I started to feel weird, and my pulse jumped to 105+ for several hours (including in a number of different environments where I usually did fine).

My conclusion was that regardless of how many people said positive things about that drug, it was not a good choice for me.

Another good use for the hr/bp monitoring might be to test supplements, since those are expensive and often contain contaminated ingredients from places like China.


The Food Sense App

About a year ago, biohacking guru Dave Asprey of the Bulletproof Executive released a free iPhone app designed to systemize Coca’s pulse test for wider use.

Called the Bulletproof Food Sense, the app uses the iPhone’s camera to take a pulse reading at specific times, then provides a report on food sensitivities.

This seems like a nifty idea, but I was unable to get the camera to work consistently to take my pulse through my fingertip. I wouldn’t be surprised if hypoperfusion caused the same problem for many individuals with chronic neuroimmune illnesses.

For those who own an iPhone though, it still could be worth giving the app a shot.

For those who don’t have an iPhone or can’t get the app to work, the old-fashioned way works just fine and is (honestly) not really much more trouble.


Your Experiences

I’d like to hear more experiences with these tools or other tools from people who have used them for pursuing avoidance of whatever sort.

Please share your experiences in the comments section.


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