Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mudpies As A Defense?

A little background for you . . .
Alright, we are no longer young children out here making mudpies and eating dirt. However, what if eating small amounts of dirt could lessen the impacts of side effects from parasites and make us healthier against them? So what if we ingest a few parasites in the process, as Zuk says: “remember, the idea that we- or any other organism- should be completely parasite-free is a modern invention, not a natural state of affairs.”[1] The concept of geophagy, or eating dirt or clay like materials, has been around for centuries amongst animals and humans alike. Research has shown both positive and negative effects on the body and on the protection from parasites from eating small amounts of dirt consistently. However, we must question, why dirt?

Why dirt?
[6]When first thinking about dirt, soil, or Georgia red clay for instance, one does not typically think that it would be a desired food. However, dirt with high amounts of clay contain high amounts of minerals such as calcium. Studies have shown that geophagy is a common practice among children and pregnant women in rural areas where proper healthcare and nutrition are lacking.[2] The origins of this practice date back to various tribes and cultural practices across the world on all continents from centuries ago. Some site homesickness, or desire to regain lost nutrients as a cause for eating dirt. Others often use it for medicinal purposes since it has anti-diarrheal properties. Pregnant women often use it as a home remedy for morning sickness.[4] A common practice is for the soil to be mixed with other things and then baked. It is common to find baked soil in local rural stores. Some cultures use dirt and clay as food when they do not have enough, although the nutritional value is very low.

So is this safe?
Not exactly, with eating dirt many risks arise. There are many STH’s (soil transmitted helminthes) that can live dormant in soil for years such as roundworm eggs. Additionally, most STH eggs are passed through human feces. In rural areas without proper plumbing and running water, defecation takes place in the dirt. Infected individuals would then be passing the eggs through the stool into the dirt, which over time could wash away, however still leaving the eggs behind. When the dirt is collected for consumption, albeit small amounts, the eggs are also collected and can be transferred once eaten.

So the benefits are?
For centuries pregnant women have eaten soil as a way to retrieve necessary nutrients that is shared with the fetus during pregnancy. Some cultures have been known to use certain types of soil in medicine. Keep in mind, were not talking the average potting soil you can find in the stores. We are talking about soil high in clay levels. Clay has been known to have adsorbing characteristics that help in removing toxins from the body. [3] For centuries, those without access to proper healthcare or those who could not afford healthcare turned to clays and soils as a way to help detox their bodies and keep them safe. Colloidal clays, such as those used for medicinal purposes, have been found to have anti-diarhheal properties. [3] This is where we see the benefits for parasites. As we have learned in class, a common side effect of any parasitic infection is diarrhea. Therefore, the side effects are reduced. As mentioned above by Zuk, humans are expected to have a few parasites. Having low amounts of parasites allows our innate immunity to build a response to them. In that case, the parasite load is not enough to cause a full-blown infection, but enough for our body to realize that they are a toxin and must be protected against.

Still not convinced?
We all have probably eaten dirt at one point in our life, whether it be through playing outside, or having vegetables and fruits that were not completely clean. With that being said, I am not saying go outside and eat a handful of dirt. Not exactly a good idea, but small amounts every now and then are not completely bad. The amount of parasites you may get by eating small amounts of dirt as children, or as adults are typically not enough to cause infection, unless dirt is eaten daily.

1. Zuk, M. Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007. Pp 207-211.
2. Peter, A. Human Geophagy: a review of its distribution, causes and implications. In: Catherine, H., Skinner, W., Berger, A. R. geology and Health: closing the gap. Oxford University press, USA. 2003. ISBN 0-19-516204-8.
3. Sing, D.; Sing, C.F. Impact of Direct Soil Exposures from Airborne Dust and Geophagy on Human Health. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2010, 7, pp 1205-1223.
4. Elom, M.; Alo, M.; Ugah, U.; Ibiam, G. Intestinal Helminthes Associated with Geophagy in Pregnancy in Afikpo North Ebonyi State. World Journal of Medicine and Medical Science. 2013, 1, pp 92-97.


  1. Reading this blog post about consuming "healthy" amounts of soil immediately made me think of the eating disorder known as PICA. While eating a little dirt couldn't hurt anybody,in addition to acquire STH, one could acquire this very unique illness. More information about the illness is provided by: As one might expect, the same groups that you point out, children and pregnant women, are most susceptible to developing PICA.
    It is surprising to know that clay is used as a source of calcium. Most of us think of milk when we think of calcium, but it is good to know that those who are lactose intolerant could have the option of eating high quality clay :). All jokes aside, calcium is vital for children and pregnant women. I learned in Nutrition that after the late 20's are reached, our bones stop absorbing calcium and relies on the calcium we have ingested in our younger years. Of course, the fetus relies on the mother for vitamins and minerals. I guess one would definitely have to be desperate to result to eating dirt, but it is nice to know that the earth provides everything that we need to survive even if it is in the form of a resource we would rather not use.

  2. I've heard of PICA before, but I don't think I've ever heard of geophagy. Apparently, it's really common in birds, and they like the high clay content soils, too. Not only are calcium and sodium released, but alkaloids and other small charged compounds are absorbed by the clay when ingested.

    You say that it's pretty common in pregnant women and it's got a high prevalence in the southeastern United States, so it surprises me that I've never known anyone to eat clay, much less for its health benefits. I also read that chimpanzees at Kibale National Park in Uganda know to ingest clay after they've eaten certain plants because it has antimalarial qualities. It all just seems so strange that eating dirt can be a good thing!

  3. You mention that the amount of parasites we may get from eating small amount of dirt is usually not enough to cause infection, but as our reactions to this article might indicate, we are all very wary of going out and eating dirt. I find this interesting because we are willing to get vaccines, such as flu shot, that essentially inject a form of the virus into our bodies so that we can be better adapted to fight against the real thing. Even though a lot of people will also say that the "flu" that are in vaccines are inactive and cannot harm you, people often get sick after getting the shot. We have the mentality that the dirt is the harmful and evidentiality "dirty", but I think we should open our minds to the possible positive outcomes of it.

    We've already discussed the decreased rates of allergies and asthma with a less sanitary upcoming, and now dirt can also add essential minerals to our body. We made viruses inactive and used them to our advantage, and I believe that we should do the same with dirt and reap in the rewards. (also a good article to look at)

  4. Reading this blog, I never knew that there were pregnant women who ate dirt to get the necessary calcium they needed. Like Brianna said, when I think of calcium, I think of milk, not dirt. Eating clay, however, has been associated with treatments for cholera and bacterial infections. In fact, there was actually a study done that found pregnant women who eat holy clay tablets to have about 20% of the US daily recommended amount for iron and calcium, as well as significant amounts of magnesium, copper, and zinc. Although there are benefits of eating dirt/clay, there are other problems that can occur along with getting parasites. In fact, the dirt/clay can be contaminated due to lead and arsenic which can lead to damage in the nervous systems or long exposures of arsenic can increase the risk of cancer.

  5. The fact that a little bit of dirt may be good for you is actually something I've wondered about after reading about the "Hygiene Hypothesis". We live in a culture that is so against things like dirt and dust bunnies, that we're actually creating a whole new set of diseases, including an amazing increase in allergies never seen before in human history, that all stem from being too clean. The idea that maybe ingesting a little bit of dirt to increase one's immunity from parasites, and bacterial disease in the long run and provide nutrients that one may not necessarily be getting at the time, goes along with this concept.

  6. I found this very interesting. I had never before heard of people eating dirt as a home remedy in any sort of culture. At the same time I am not surprised because many of the ancient and indigenous populations relied on the earth for all medicinal treatments, so it doesn't seem to far fetched that soil wold be included among these treatments. I have never eaten dirt, not even when I was younger (I have eaten grass), and I'm not quite sure if the positives out weigh the negatives. I feel that in an area where there is good public sanitation it could be beneficial to ingest clays, but at he same time these people would not be exposed to many of the parasites that cause diarrhea. It is those who live in regions where the soil would be contaminated with feces that would live in these regions, thus I see the positive effects of the soil be canceled out by the risk of contracting a helminth.

    1. I agree how eating soil for the nutrients can be beneficial, but you have to consider how many nutrients you are receiving from the soil. The clay only gives minor quantities of nutrients to those who consume it. By eating soil, you are at risk of contracting helminths like you said unless the soil is retrieved from a location where there should be no helminths. Because helminths are spread through feces, if the soil is acquired from somewhere different from where the community defecates, there should not be a problem with helminths. Like in the video Brittany posted above, the soil was taken from up a hill a few kilometers away from where it was processed. If the right precautions are taken when acquiring the soil, I see no problem with eating the soil. It not only gives you nutrients but also has the ability to strengthen your immune system through the small amount of bacteria or parasites that may be present on an infected slab of dirt. Overall, I think the benefits outweigh the costs if the soil is acquired from an area separate from the local pooping ground.

  7. Zuk also mentions that humans have evolved the enjoyment of spices as an adaptation to fight off parasites and infection due the many benefits they provide. In a study by Sherman and Billing, the infection rates were compared between Japan and Korea. It was discovered that in Korea, where spices are commonly used, the infection rates were lower. They predicted that the Japanese did not need to incorporate spices into their cooking because a lot of their food was fresher (such as sea food).

  8. I find it extremely interesting how so many different cultures have converged on using clay as either part of their diet or part of their daily activity. For instance, clays were used in food preparation in countries such as the Philippines, New Guinea, Costa Rica, Guatemala, the Amazon, and the Orinoco basins of South America, much like spices are used to adorn foods (as Kate mentioned). Studies have shown that clays were also used for the removal of toxins in aboriginal acorn breads. The indigenous Pomo people of California mix the clay with the acorn bread to neutralize its acidity. Perhaps more familiar to us, clays had medical significance. The kaolin found in the clay can help alleviate irregular bowel movements as Brittany mentioned. In our own state, some women of Greene County, Georgia participate in geophagy. Often times, “white clay” is given as a gift for expectant mothers. These cultural characteristics show that the history of humans eating clay for nutritive purposes has a deeper route that was previously expected (and stigmatized).

    Information from: &

  9. Before learning about this in class, I had never even heard of eating dirt besides someone getting decked on a football field. Eating dirt has such a bad connotation, yet somehow you're telling me that it could be good for me?!? Well, I will admit to licking rocks off the playground when I was back in elementary school, mainly because I was that know-it-all kind of kid that thought that rocks were a necessary part of the food triangle because they were made up of "minerals." My teachers did nothing about it, probably telling themselves that this kid was destined to lick rocks for the rest of his life. Maybe I was simply satiating a miss guided evolutionary urge?!?! Then again, I doubt it. I was a crazy toddler, and would lick the bottoms of people's shoes back in India. India. dirty.... very dirty.... But hey! at least I don't have allergies now, may be it paid off. But yeah, dirt seems like the next logical step in fulfilling my evolutionarlly selected for tendencies. People have been keeping it a secret apparently. Maybe its the huge "organic food craze." I'll stick to the times and only eat free-range dirt. A few parasites wouldn't be too bad, I could use some company on horror movie nights :P.

  10. This article is very interesting because I only heard of the fact that birds eat clay/rocks to help digestion since they do not have teeth. So it is quite unusual to see people eating dirt for health reason. However, I do not think eating dirt is necessarily beneficial to people. People who need minerals such as calcium can actually take something else such as milk (not for lactose-intolerant though), anchovy, or simply, calcium supplement . In addition, people think that dirt can detoxify the body by removing heavy metals (some people testify that after eating clay, their feces smell like metal). According to Dr. David L. Katz, M.D., MPH, FACPM, FACP, a HuffPost blogger, however, removing metal from body is not always good since a lot of them are essential to body such as iron. Moreover, there are some concerns for pregnant women and fetus that they can exposed to arsenic, lead and other toxicants that naturally occured in soil. So...why not eat something else that can be at least edible??
    --source by:

  11. As we talked about in class, this is a very interesting phenomenon. Upon reading this in Riddled, I was a little shocked. I've heard of pregnant women desiring various oddities including green beans with ice cream, but never have I heard of eating dirt. I mean it's dirty, not to make a pun. Even though, I would've thought that this was a foreign oddity, until I heard that it occurs hear in Georgia. What concerns me are the STHs. Although treatable, these parasites like hookworm and whipworm can cause significant damage to the body including extensive blood and protein lose when in high concentrations. Do the benefits of obtaining extra nutrients outweigh the cost of infection from fecal matter within the soil? I can't say for sure, but I do know that I will not be purchasing or consuming any dirt anytime soon.