Pica Again

(a danger to both young and old)

Pica, from excerpts in the NewScientist magazine

Pica is still a serious problem for some people who can't control their cravings for eating the wrong things!

  • A 62-year-old man in France was rushed to an emergency room, complaining of severe stomach pains.
  • Doctors made an X-ray of his stomach and found a large mass that was heavy enough to push his stomach down in an abnormal position.
  • During an operation, the doctors are astonished to find more than five kilograms (about eleven pounds) of coins, worth the equivalent of a total of $650.
  • This is just one example of the effects of a strange condition called pica, the compulsion to swallow non-food items.
  • As stated in another page, pica comes from the Latin for magpie, a bird famed for eating almost anything it can find.
  • Pica behavior is considered to be normal with infants, who explore the world through their mouths; sometimes swallowing things they shouldn't; but in older people it can be especially life-threatening.
  • Who is suffering from pica?

  • Pregnant women craving, and even eating, coal and clay, but such behavior apparently is not all that unusual.
  • Expectant mothers in many sub-Saharan African cultures routinely eat soils; also known as, geophagia
  • Maybe this practice is a result of the heightened sense of smell and taste during pregnancy.
  • In one investigation into geophagia, pregnant women reported that the rich smell of the soil drove them to eat it.
  • One extreme example of pregnancy pica involved a pregnant woman who suffered from weakness and muscle pain because she was eating almost half a kilogram (about one pound) of baking soda a day.
  • Pica is also common with people who have cognitive or psychiatric disorders; such as, autism and schizophrenia.
  • Sometimes a blood test for mineral deficiencies can help solve some of the pica problems.
  • Compulsive consumption of ice (pagophagia) is often associated with iron deficiency.
  • A nine-year-old girl who routinely ate cloth and string was helped by taking vitamin supplelments.
  • Would such blood tests also help in the diagnosis of the man who swallowed eleven pounds of coins or another man who had a compulsion to "eat" (swallow) cigarette lighters (as reported in the journal Gastrointestinal Endoscopy in 2005?
—Excerpts from "The word" in NewScientist, May 27, 2006; page 54.

Clay may be eaten and certain kinds of clay also have the potential for healing

Clay has long been used in fashionable spas for cleansing masks, but now researchers believe clay has antibacterial properties that may give it more than merely cosmetic value.

In an unusual pairing of mineralogy and medicine, geochemist Lynda Williams and microbiologist Shelley Haydel of Arizona State University are studying smectite (liquidy, soaplike) clays and their effects on microbes.

Two such clays mined in France have been used to treat Buruli ulcer, a flesh-eating bacterial disease that the World Health Organization has declared an emerging public health threat.

The National Institute of Health's "National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine" recently awarded Williams and Haydel a grant to study clay's potential as an alternative to antibiotics in treating Buruli ulcer.

Clay has also been used as a folk remedy to soothe nausea and stomach ailments; a mineral found in some clays, kaolinite, is a major ingredient for Kaopectate.

"People are interested in natural cures and I think that there is a lot of nature that we don't understand yet," says Williams.

If the antimicrobial activity of the clays can be isolated, the result would be a new form of treatment that exceeds the abilities of today's antibiotics, she believes. "And they could be produced and distributed cheaply."

—Arizona State University, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences;
and School of Life Sciences.

A page about eating non-nutritive things. A page about Allotriophagy or the eating of non-food items.

A page about eating non-nutritive things. Geophagy or eating clay.

A page about eating non-nutritive things. The pica unit.