Geophagia, the practice of eating dirt, has existed all over the world throughout history. People who have pica, an eating disorder in which they crave and eat nonfood items, often consume dirt.
Some people who are anemic also eat dirt, as do some pregnant women worldwide. In fact, many pregnant women often crave dirt, possibly because of the potential protection dirt can provide against some toxins and parasites, according to research.
Although many people link geophagia to a number of health benefits, it’s also associated with a range of health issues. Eating dirt, especially over a long period of time, can increase risk for a number of problems, including:
- heavy metal poisoning
- gastrointestinal problems
Here, we’ll explain geophagia in detail, covering the possible reasons behind it and offering tips on how to stop eating dirt.
Cravings for dirt can develop for different reasons.
If you have pica, an eating disorder in which you crave a variety of nonfood items, you may have the urge to eat dirt. Other common pica cravings include:
Pagophagia, persistent ice eating or cravings for ice, can also be a sign of pica. Pica usually won’t be diagnosed in children, as many children eat dirt when their young and stop on their own.
Pica can co-occur with conditions such as trichotillomania or schizophrenia, but it doesn’t always involve a separate mental health diagnosis.
Though pica isn’t fully understood,
In some cases, pica cravings may go away once you consume enough iron or other missing nutrients. If getting the necessary nutrients doesn’t help, therapy can help address pica and any underlying concerns.
Eating dirt as part of a cultural practice, or because other people in your family or community also eat dirt, differs from pica. In this instance, there’s a clear reason for eating dirt.
For example, some believe eating dirt or clay can:
- help improve stomach issues
- soften skin or alter skin tone
- offer protective benefits during pregnancy
- prevent or treat illness by absorbing toxins
Hippocrates was the first to describe geophagia. Other early medical texts also mention the practice of eating earth to help stomach troubles and menstrual cramps.
European medical texts from the 16th and 17th centuries mention geophagia that appeared to occur with chlorosis, or “green sickness,” a type of anemia. Throughout history, geophagia has been noted to occur more among pregnant women or in times of famine.
Geophagia still occurs all over the world, though it happens most often in tropical regions. It could be related to foodborne illness, which is common in these climates.
Clay can help absorb toxins, so many support earth eating as a way of relieving stomach issues, such as food poisoning.
Although geophagia may not begin as a mental health concern, over time, eating dirt could come to resemble an addiction. Some people report finding it difficult to stop, even after they start having health problems associated with eating dirt.
Some may also spend money and travel significant distances to find their preferred clay or soil. Not being able to find or afford a specific type of soil or clay can also lead to distress.
Eating dirt may not always cause harm, but it could contribute to a number of health concerns. The more dirt you eat, the more likely you’ll experience negative side effects and illness.
Cravings for dirt might indicate anemia, but eating dirt won’t necessarily improve your symptoms. It’s important to talk to a doctor and have your blood checked so you can get the right nutritional supplements.
Some research also suggests geophagy can interfere with your ability to digest necessary nutrients, since clay in your stomach may bind to iron, zinc, and other nutrients. In other words, eating dirt could increase risk for anemia.
Parasites, bacteria, and heavy metals
Eating dirt can expose you to parasites, bacteria, and toxic heavy metals. Dirt that contains a lot of potassium could lead to high blood potassium, increasing your risk for cardiac arrhythmia or cardiac arrest.
Constipation is a common side effect of soil consumption. An intestinal obstruction or perforation is also possible, though these side effects are somewhat less common.
Many pregnant women crave dirt or clay. Experts haven’t yet discovered a clear reason why this happens.
Changes in immune system function could slightly increase your risk of being affected by toxins and foodborne illness, such as listeria. But multiple animal studies have suggested clay consumption offers protection against a range of toxins.
Whatever the cause for dirt cravings during pregnancy, eating dirt can create health risks not only for you, but also the developing fetus.
Even if the dirt you eat is free of toxins and has been baked or prepared safely, it can still bind in your stomach to the nutrients you get from other sources, preventing your body from absorbing them properly. This can put your health at risk.
There’s very little research supporting the benefits of eating dirt for humans.
- A 2011 review of geophagy in 482 people and 297 animals found evidence to suggest the main reason people eat dirt is the possible protection soil might offer against toxins. But more research is needed to support this theory.
- Animals often eat dirt or clay when they have diarrhea, stomach distress, or eat poisonous fruit. Bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate), a medication that treats diarrhea, has a mineral makeup that’s similar to
kaolin, or the kind of clay some people eat for the same purpose. So eating soil could potentially relieve diarrhea. It may also cause constipation and other concerns if the dirt you eat contains bacteria or parasites.
- Many pregnant women worldwide eat dirt to help ease morning sickness symptoms, according to
2003 research. A number of cultures support this practice as a folk remedy, but these benefits are largely anecdotal and haven’t been proven conclusively.
- Scientific evidence supporting other anecdotal benefits of eating dirt, such as a paler complexion or smoother skin, doesn’t yet exist.
Experts have noted many risks associated with eating dirt, so in general, the risks of eating dirt may be more significant than any potential benefit, especially if you’re pregnant.
If you’re concerned about nutrition deficiency, diarrhea, morning sickness, or any other health concerns, it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider.
If you want to stop eating dirt, or your cravings bother you and cause distress, these tips may be helpful:
- Talk to a trusted friend or family member. If you tell someone you trust about your cravings, they may be able to offer support and help distract you if you have a hard time avoiding dirt on your own.
- Chew or eat food that’s similar in color and texture. Finely ground cookies, cereal, or crackers could help alleviate your cravings. Chewing gum or sucking on hard candy can also help with pica cravings.
- Speak with a therapist. If you aren’t sure why you’re craving dirt, a therapist can help you address the cravings and explore behaviors that can help you avoid eating dirt.
- See your healthcare provider. You might want to eat dirt because you aren’t getting the right nutrients. If you do have any nutrient deficiencies, your doctor can help you correct these imbalances. If you’re getting enough of the vitamins you need, the cravings might go away.
- Use positive reinforcement. A system of rewards for not eating dirt can also help some people dealing with pica cravings. Being rewarded for choosing a food item can help reduce your desire to eat dirt.
The stigma around eating dirt can pose a barrier when seeking medical treatment.
You may worry about how to mention the topic to your healthcare provider. But if you’ve eaten dirt and have concerns about exposure to toxins, parasites, or heavy metals, it’s best to discuss with a professional. Without treatment, these issues could become serious.
If you have any new or concerning health symptoms and you’ve eaten dirt, you may want to talk to your doctor. Signs to look out for include:
- painful or bloody bowel movements
- unexplained nausea and vomiting
- shortness of breath
- tightness in your chest
- fatigue, trembling, or weakness
- general sense of feeling unwell
It’s possible to get tetanus from eating dirt. Tetanus can be life-threatening, so see a doctor right away if you experience:
- cramping in your jaw
- muscle tension, stiffness, and spasms, particularly in your stomach
- head pain
- increased sweating
Cravings for dirt don’t necessarily point to a mental health concern, but therapy is always a safe place to talk about cravings and how you might address them.
Therapy can also help you work through addictive behaviors, so if you find it difficult to stop eating dirt, or think frequently about eating dirt, a therapist can offer support and help you learn how to cope with these thoughts.
Cravings for dirt aren’t abnormal, so try not to worry if you experience them. People eat dirt for a number of reasons, whether as a cultural practice, to relieve stomach issues, or absorb toxins.
It’s important to consider the possible risks that come with eating dirt. Other remedies can help relieve stomach distress safely without the risk of:
- increased bowel problems
If your cravings relate to nutrient deficiencies, your healthcare provider can prescribe supplements to correct these imbalances. If you want to stop eating dirt, a healthcare provider or therapist can offer support and guidance.