Our large wolfhound had the gentlest disposition, but he liked to eat dirt. His front teeth indicated that this was possibly something that he indulged in since he was a pup because the lower teeth were ground down, probably from chewing on pebbles and rocks.
The giant breed dogs grow at an accelerated rate. The puppy’s bones need time to fuse, so it is expected that there may be possible calcium and mineral deficiencies linked to rapid, uneven growth. In animals, a hair test is good to do to pinpoint which minerals are lacking.
Likewise, some children don’t grow evenly. There are reports of eating dirt or clay expressing this concern. You can do a hair test in children too. Customarily, the pediatrician would administer a blood test to determine possible geophagia and iron deficiency anemia, or other underling circumstances, which compel the child to eat dirt. Sometimes it’s just the curious, experimental stage that kids eventually grow out of.
Pica refers to people eating non-food items like dirt, clay, paint chips, glue, or ashes. Geophagia - also known as eating dirt disorder is a common disorder in approximately 10% – 30% of children between one and six.
Geophagy in pregnancy is also a thing. The old pun, “dill pickles & ice cream stage,” referring to the wild cravings of pregnancy. It’s the body requiring either iron or mineral support in the gestation phase.
Without a doubt, the soil contains nutrients. It’s possible that when the body is lacking such nutrients, cravings necessitate immediate fuel. Thus, people succumb to eating dirt, defined as geophagia, which has been with us since Byzantium.
Hippocrates informs us, Emperor Justinian of Constantinople’s physician, Aetius of Ameda, compiled a 6th-century obstetric textbook giving us such evidence:
"Approximately during the second month of pregnancy, a disorder appears that has been called Pica, a name derived from the living bird, the magpie…. Women then desire different objects… some prefer spicy things, others salty dishes and again others earth, eggshells, or ashes."
- Wegscheider and Gynäkologie - 1901
In the 17th century, geophagia also referred to as the term pica, was associated with another ailment, termed chlorosis, or febris alba virginum, which affected teenaged girls. Hypochromic anemia was historically known as chlorosis or green sickness for the distinct green skin tinge present in patients.
Anthropologists, colonial physicians, and explorers all have accounts of geophagia. Exploring South America, Alexander von Humboldt discerned the following:
"This area, populated by the Otomacs, a forgotten tribe (from Venezuela), shows the most peculiar behaviour. The Otomacs eat earth; that is, they wolf it down in quite considerable amounts. Von Humboldt: From Orinoco to Amazon."
- Alexander Von Humboldt
What is Alexander von Humboldt known for?
Aside from being a nature researcher, scientist and explorer, Humboldt described geophagia in detail, asserting the explanation that this behaviour was to quell hunger. There were reserves of large heaps of red dirt stored for periods of famine. This red clay-like dirt could have been Bentonite Clay, which today we understand to have both medicinal minerals and vermicidal properties.
David Livingston’s journals commented about Safura, an earth-eating disease in Zanzibar, as they also preferred a red clay brand. Livingston didn’t believe that poverty and famine caused earth eating habits because he noticed even the wealthy participated in this delicacy. The colonial physicians remarked frustrated plantation owners whose slaves were geophagic would become progressively ill and die. Apparently, it was so widespread that the colonials administered fitted face masks to prevent slaves from eating earth.
In Gabon Africa, geophagy is practiced for pleasure and the suppression of hunger. In Cameroon, clay is sold in most markets, with added spices such as pepper and cardamom. Its consumption is immensely popular with women, especially during pregnancy.
In Haiti, the poor eat mud biscuits made from soil, salt, and vegetable shortening. They may not hold the best nutritional values, but it sustains them during times of great poverty. Doctors don’t recommend long-term use of mud biscuits because it can cause stomach pain, constipation, or blockages and malnutrition in the long run.
We see a rich history behind eating dirt.
To conclude, the precise answer to why it occurs is multifactorial. It has associations with anemia, mineral deficiency, a psychiatric ailment, and a dietary delicacy with some cultures.
Let’s look at some of the geophagy benefits. Here I rely on my little friend, who first introduced me to the eating dirt, my giant hound.
My geriatric hound started to snack on the echinacea plant in the back yard. We’re all aware of the benefits echinacea has to the natural immune system. Animals do too instinctively. Animal behavior is intelligent with subtle wisdom that has transcended generations to silently, “just know what’s good” – instinct.
The African elephants take to the mountainsides to eat the red clay. It has health benefits in that it rids them of parasites, and it conditions their skin. Parrots in Peru crave this treat.
"They flock to the side of a clay lick facing the Tambopata River in the western Amazon Basin. Up to 18 species flock together daily for sun-dried clay.
There are two main hypotheses for why Peruvian parrots practice geophagy — the intentional consumption of soil. The first is that clay is a natural detox treatment. When food is limited and safer plants are in short supply, clay could help birds eat the more toxic plants that remain. Indeed, some laboratory experiments have shown that clay could bind to toxins, keeping them out of a parrot's bloodstream."
- Carolyn Beans
The other explanation is that the parrots’ geophagy contributes to vital minerals that the parrot’s plant-based food lacks. The clay was found to have 40 times more sodium than the parrot’s diet. This mineral is essential for nerve function and muscle contraction. This mineral quickly washes away from the ecosystem in their warm climate, except when found off the clay cliff. This shows that the clay works as a nutrient supplement and beneficial organic digestive supplement.
Canin Herbalist Rita Hogan sheds a greater understanding of clay. She explains that clay works with the body to correct imbalances by two methods. The absorption methods, which is the rate of how fast the clay reaches saturation, and the process of adsorption or rate of how well it binds with organic and inorganic substances.
The process varies with different types of clays. Clay is a negatively charged substance, and most toxins are positively charged. This polarity makes clay irresistible to viruses, bacteria, parasites, gases, and other substances. Clay does this without harmful side effects.
In other words, clay eliminates internal parasites, fluids, gases, toxins, and heavy metals. It supports a robust immune system by balancing pH levels for the good intestinal flora and detoxifying the digestive tract.
There are different types of clay that are commonly used in the naturalist’s repertory. Here is a look at some of the common ones.
Bentonite clay varies in its mineral composition, depending on its source. It is available worldwide now. Its surface particles are both negatively and positively charged. To use the analogy that Rita Hogan used, “it’s like an ant that can carry four times its size in weight, so bentonite clay can transport the particles outside the body.” It relieves digestive issues like constipation and bloating or gas, soothes skin and allergy issues and can help you recover from vomiting and diarrhea.
Montmorillonite, popularly known as French green clay, is rich with Mediterranean Sea algae. It has anti-inflammatory properties, high in silica, supports the connective tissues helping to defuse arthritic conditions, and is invaluable for removing blood toxins.
Illite is a fine, non-expansive green clay that supports ailing tissues. At the same time, it hunts out undesirable microbes from the body.
Redmond Clay may be used both internally and externally. It has high sodium and calcium content, which is perfect for infections. It may be used as a poultice for joint care, insect bites, and other topical inflammations.
Kaolin is a white clay mineral layered with silicate that is widely used as a digestive aid. Then there is Palygorskite, also recognized as Attapulgite, a magnesium-aluminum phyllosilicate, common to the Southeastern United States. This natural earth is now administered in pharmaceutical anti-diarrheal medicines.
In both animals and humans, we see the body’s natural selective senses in action to get what is needed from our good earth. Soil contains many minerals. Clay minerals have beneficial microbiological effects, such as protecting the stomach against toxins, parasites, and pathogens. The human body has difficulty synthesizing vitamin B12 (cobalt); therefore, geophagy may be a behavioural adaptation to obtain it from the soil from regions where soil contains high calcium, copper, magnesium, iron, and zinc, minerals essential for development. Obviously, too much can harm, but its ability to help is astonishing in the right measure.
Our soil has seen the same changes as humanity, throughout history. Join us in our mission to encourage soil mindfulness. The very ground you walk on balances our – Soil for Humanity
1-Rita Hogan is a certified canine herbalist, co-founder of farmdognaturals.com and canineherbalist.com
Our soils, and clay contain minerals with many beneficial properties when used responsibly. For any chronic or serious ailments collaboration with your physician, or naturopathic professional for optimum relief is recommended.