March 1, 2012
Hey Mom, Dirt Really Is Good For Me!
Have you ever frowned or watched in disgust as kids stuff handfuls of mud into their mouths while playing? Moms are notorious for their sprinting abilities and for the sheer speeds they can attain to prevent their children from scooping even another gram of earth towards their face. Well it looks like mom should have just relaxed.
The most probable explanation for human geophagy--the eating of earth--is that it protects the stomach against toxins, parasites, and pathogens.
As a mom myself, I can attest to my own tendencies to prevent dirt from reaching my child's mouth. I remember feverishly chasing after my kids every single time they were crouching down and playing lunch soup with a bowl of mud as the main course. As a parent, your first instinct is to discpline and prevent this behavior in the future. Although well intended, a child's innate instinct to gravitate towards this eating dirt is a quite good thing after all.
Geophagy is extremely widespread in the animal kingdom. Galen, the famous Greek philosopher and physician, was the first to record the use of clay by sick or injured animals back in the second century AD. This type of geophagy has been documented in "many species of mammals, birds, reptiles, butterflies and isopods, especially among herbivores
The first written account of human geophagy comes from Hippocrates more than 2,000 years ago, says Sera Young, a researcher at Cornell University. Since then, the eating of earth has been reported on every inhabited continent and in almost every country.
Geophagy was practised by Native Americans in California and Peru who would eat earth with acorns and potatoes to neutralize potentially harmful alkaloids. Clay was used in the production of acorn bread in California and Sardinia, Italy.
While geophagy is most often seen in tribal and rural societies among children and pregnant women, it is practiced by members of all races, social classes, ages, and sexes. In some parts of the world, geophagia is a culturally sanctioned practice. In many parts of the developing world, earth intended for consumption is available for purchase.
In the past, women who wanted to become pregnant followed the eating patterns of successful mothers instead of changing their diet according to medical studies and recommendations. As a result, geophagy has continued to pass from generation to generation. Cooked, baked, and processed dirt and clay are sold in health food stores and rural flea markets in the South. Researchers have noticed that geophagy is not as prevalent as it once was as rural Americans assimilate into urban culture. In order for geophagy to remain a part of American culture, more effective marketing strategies need to be implemented that fit into modern American culture.
Many experts have suggested that nutrition is exactly why dirt is consumed; perhaps people crave dirt because it provides nutrients they lack, such as iron, zinc, or calcium. Still others posit that earth has a protective effect, working as a shield against ingested parasites, pathogens, and plant toxins.
There is evidence that supports the usefulness of the flora found in soil. Some have even suggested that it is useful, if not vital, in the establishment of healthy bacteria within the digestive tract, addressing the problems presented by Crohn's Disease and Leaky Gut Syndrome. Highly adsorbent families of clays have been demonstrated to cause the lining of the vertebrate gut to change both on a cellular and acellular level, potentially protecting the gut from chemical insults as well as alleviating ailments such as esophagitis, gastritis, and colitis.
Young and her colleagues analyzed reports from missionaries, plantation doctors, explorers, and anthropologists to put together a database of more than 480 cultural accounts of geophagy. The database includes as many details as possible about the circumstances under which earth was consumed, and by whom.
Overall, the protection hypothesis fits the data best, the Cornell researchers found. The research showed that geophagy is documented most commonly in women in the early stages of pregnancy and in pre-adolescent children. Both categories of people are especially sensitive to parasites and pathogens, according to Young and her colleagues. In addition, geophagy is most common in tropical climates where foodborne microbes are abundant. Finally, the research showed that people often eat earth during episodes of gastrointestinal stress.
Although most people in the west part of the world probably won't be incorporating dirt as part of their dinner menu, it's nice to know that the behavior itself is as natural as being human. It's also more evidence that we need to let children be as they often know exactly what they're doing.
April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.