March 24, 2019
Handful of arable soil in hands of responsible farmer

Geophagia: What on Earth Is That?

by Berkeley Wellness  

Eating “dirt” (soil, clay, or earth) is hardly a new phenomenon. The practice, called geophagia or geophagy, has existed for thousands of years, dating back to Hippocrates.

Though it has been associated with the psychiatric disorder pica—whereby people crave and purposefully consume non-food items like sand, paint chips, chalk, laundry starch, and hair—geophagia is not necessarily aberrant behavior. It’s actually widespread in animals, from macaws to gorillas, and relatively common in the world’s poorest people and in tribal societies, as well as in pregnant women in many cultures.

There are several theories behind geophagia: Soil may be ingested for its minerals (such as calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, and chromium)—or just to curb hunger pangs. It may ease symptoms of morning sickness. Some research supports the idea that eating earth binds plant toxins and pathogens in the gastrointestinal tract.

That’s not to say it’s a good practice. If the purpose is to acquire more nutrients, it can be counterproductive, since eating earth may interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients and, if done regularly, could lead to deficiencies. Also of concern, soil may contain lead, arsenic, and other toxic metals, as well as parasitic worms, viruses, and bacteria—the very things geophagia is supposed to protect against. According to a paper in Environmental Geochemistry and Health in 2002, geophagia is associated with a range of problems, including iron-deficiency anemia, low potassium, parasitic infections, and bowel obstruction.

Bottom line: While scientists continue to debate whether geophagia has any adaptive functions, we recommend getting nutrients from food grown in healthy soil—and that you let your body do its own “detoxifying.”