The Health Reasons Some People
Actually Eat Dirt

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August 10, 2016

By Ariadne Weinberg, Featured Columnist




Sometimes a little dirt gets on potatoes, or other veggies,
and I let it pass. It's all good. But I never thought that
purposefully eating the dirt itself is something that anyone
would choose.

As it turns out, there are so many people who do go for this
option that it has a name --- "geophagia, which means the
deliberate consumption of earth, soil, and clay.


Why in the world would people eat dirt? Usually the reasons
are threefold: cultural practice, poverty and famine, and in
some cases, a psychiatric disorder.

People have been eating dirt for thousands of years. The
Father of Modern Medicine, the Greek physician Hippocrates,
in the 5th century wrote of pregnant women who "desire to
eat dirt or charcoal".

Here in the United States, rural populations in the South and
elsewhere have been eating clay for many decades. And
around the world, scientists have recorded instances of
cultures which eat clay or dirt.


Geophagia falls into the broader category of "pica", defined
by the American Psychiatric Association as the persistent
eating of a non-nutritive substance that happens outside of
the normal cultural practice and outside of the person's
developmental level. Adults eating dirt isn't particularly
normal in Canada, for example.  If pica occurs along with
another mental disorder, it should be treated very carefully.

Sometimes, those who dirt or who engage in other forms of
pica, do so in secret.  If someone does eat dirt in secret,
then stopping the habit is complicated by disentangling
feelings of shame.

What's the worst thing that could happen if you have been
eating dirt? Well, that depends on how much you consume
and where you live.  But, all things considered, eating dirt as
a habit is not a part of a great health plan. Read on to find
out why.


Iron-deficiency Anemia Can Make People Eat Dirt




































In general, there is a high correlation between iron-
deficiency anemia and pica.

Perhaps people are almost instinctively trying to get the iron
from dirt.

But, unfortunately, eating dirt can make anemia worse.

Consuming dirt and clay has been shown to
deplete iron, by
binding iron in the gastrointestinal tract.

In 2010, H. Nafil from the Université Cadi Ayyad in Maroc
looked at patients who had both pica and iron deficiency.
75% of these cases were due to geophagia.

Nafil and colleagues examined the records from the
department of hematology at a hospital center in Marrakech,
focusing on adult patients coming in for treatment between
January 1st 2005 and December 31st, 2010.

During those six years, 320 patients with iron deficiency
were seen, 256 women and 64 men. Iron deficiency anemia
was present in 17.5% of them, and all patients with pica
were women, 21.8% (56/256), average age 23.


Whether iron deficiency caused geophagia or geophagia
caused iron deficiency, or if it's a positive feedback loop, is
inconclusive in this particular case. However, the study
showed that taking iron supplements caused a regression of
pica in 64.3% of the patients.


The point here is get enough iron, and don't expect dirt to
fill in the extra you're missing. There are better options.


Watch Out -- Dirt Can Be Toxic


The problem with many foods and substances is that you
don't always know what they are made up of.

Dirt is no exception. Scientist W. Al-Rmali from De Montfort
University in the U.K. found that Bangladeshi women were
especially vulnerable.

In 2010, he and colleagues discovered that they were
common amongst both pregnant and non-pregnant
Bangladeshi ladies, both in Bangladesh and in the United
Kingdom.


This had to do primarily with their consumption of baked
clay, called sikor.

After putting this substance in a microwave digestor and
analyzing the chemicals, they discovered that it had
significant amounts of arsenic, cadmium, and lead.

Arsenic! Yikes. That's the classic poison ingredient. And the
other two won't do you much good, either. The clay
exceeded by twofold the amount of inorganic arsenic it was
acceptable to consume.


You don't have to be Bangladeshi and female to worry about
this situation, though. Even in the developed world on the
American continent, pesticides and other unknown
substances can be present in the most innocent of gardens.


Eating Dirt Can Cause Organ Distress


There have been a few reported cases of the internal system
being seriously screwed up due to geophagia. It isn't the
most common side effect, but believe me, you don't want to
be one of the unlucky ones. Y. Ilhan from the Department of
General Surgery Firat University School of Medicine in Elaziğ,
Turkey, reported one case in 1999, where a 71-year-old
mentally handicapped woman had to receive an emergency
operation because her colon was perforated, due to
geophagia.


Another side effect could be digestive problems. In the
Sudan Journal of Medicine Studies, one instance was
reported in 2001 by El Shallaly, of a male 4-year-old child
presenting with abdominal distension and constipation. The
mother said that he had been regularly picking up sand to
eat a month before being treated. Along with a grossly
distended abdomen, he had opacification in the large and
small bowels. With rectal washout treatments, the
obstruction was relieved and he started to pass normal
stools on the 7th day.


You never know how your own organs could react to eating
dirt. You don't want to end up constipated or in the
operating room.


Pregnancy Risks  - Don't Eat Dirt If You're Pregnant



































Although it is common for women to develop various types
of pica during pregnancy, in most cases, they really
shouldn't give in to it.

It does more harm than good. In 1997, E.C. Patterson
tested the effects of kaolin (clay) ingestion on maternal
blood and embryonic development in rats. 36 sprague-
dawley rats were divided into 3 groups: control diet, 20%
kaolin diet, and iron-supplemented 20% kaolin diet. Rats
were fed every 37-68 days, 69-95 days, and 96-117 days
prior to fertilization.

The kaolin diet caused reductions in hemoglobin, hematocrit,
and red blood cells, and increased maternal anemia. There
was also a significant birthweight reduction. The iron-
supplemented group had normal levels for everything. So, if
you must eat dirt, take some iron along with it.


These results were confirmed, looking at humans in sub-
saharan Africa. In 2012, Grace George and Adams Abiodun
from the Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha, Eastern Cape,
South Africa gave 210 pregnant women a questionnaire to
fill out with demographic info, dietary habits and geophagic
practices. Blood was drawn later for analysis.

Of the 36.6% who practiced geophagia, 11.7% consumed
dirt on a daily basis, 45.5% weekly, and 41.6% monthly.
52% of all women surveyed were anemic, 68.8% of those
geophagic and 15.8% not.

There were statistically significant differences observed in
biochemical markers of iron status and hematological
markers such as hematocrit.


Are There Any Health Benefits At All to Eating Dirt?


According to M.A. Johnson, also from Walter-Sisulu
University, the use of kaolin (clay) can potentially be used to
treat diarrhea, gastritis, colitis, enhancement of bioactivities,
and maintenance of normal intestinal flora.


However, there are many more disadvantages than
advantages. Apart from the ones already mentioned, the
nitrate run off that often leaches into soil can cause
colonization by toxic cyanobacteria, causing various medical
ripple effects, including gastroenteritis. Dental damage,
peritonitis, eclampsia, and even mortality has been reported.


In 2013, Peter W. Abrahams wanted to know if calabash
chalk and udongo, two earth products, had any nutrients.
Unfortunately, neither contained particularly large quantities
of bioaccessible nutrients.

So, for those who are munching dirt in order to get the
necessary chemicals into the body, chances are good that it
won't work.

Try browsing fruits and vegetables to see which ones might
do the trick instead.







































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