It was the smell of the clay for me that held me captive for so long. Was I pregnant? Oh not all. Did I know its effects? Of course. I remember my supplier of the clay blocks, some elderly lady finally finding her voice and managing to ask me why my stomach was not increasing in size for all this long (She believed I was expecting). This is when it dawned on that I had taken this dirt for so long and I began to worry for my appendix. It should be working overtime collecting all the small stones from the clay as my body struggles to digest this non food delicacy of mine so I reasoned. Given my knowledge in nutrition, I knew that my body was signaling something, a deficiency of some sort and as anticipated my iron levels were wanting when I finally took the blood test. It could have been worse if I had not given myself a self check thanks to my curious clay distributor but what happens to someone who has no idea that it is a problem or has become so addicted to it that they don’t even realize it is eating them away.
I once read an article of a girl who was addicted to eating hair and had to undergo surgery and guess what! a hair ball as big as a melon was removed. This was after the parents noticed a drastic weight loss in the girl as the hair in her system made it impossible for her to eat and she kept throwing up. (https://www.deccanchronicle.com/lifestyle/health-and-wellbeing/130717/melon-sized-hairball-removed-from-stomach-of-girl-addicted-to-eating-hair.html) This is how bad this habit or say disorder can get and this disorder has a name, Pica
Bulimia and anorexia nervosa are the eating disorders that have been talked about the most and I still wonder why pica has not received the required attention it so deserved given its dire effects. So let us explore a little what pica is.
What is Pica
Pica is an eating disorder in which a person eats things that are not usually considered as food. These people compulsively eat items that have no nutritional value like dirt, clay, rocks, paper, ice, hair, paint chips, chalk and even feces (poop). This disorder is most often in children and pregnant women although it’s usually temporary for them, however we have other people with this disorder that are addicted and are struggling with it.
Talking about what causes pica, it is said that in some cases, a deficiency in iron, zinc, or another nutrient can be associated with pica. For instance anemia, usually from iron deficiency, has been known to be the underlying cause of pica in pregnant women (in some cultures it is a common practice for pregnant women to eat clay and some even go further to put medicinal herbs for them in clay to ingest throughout the pregnancy period). So your unusual cravings may be a sign that your body is trying to replenish low nutrient levels reason for you to find out.
People with certain mental health conditions like schizophrenia ( A disorder that affects a person’s ability to think, feel and behave clearly) and obsessive compulsive disorder ( A disorder is characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears that lead to compulsive behaviors) can adopt pica as a coping mechanism. Some people may even enjoy and crave the textures or flavors of certain nonfood items. I have been with quite a number of people who are obsessed the smell of soil as it begins to rain.
Signs and symptoms
This is the condition where no laboratory are done to diagnose but instead, the diagnosis is made from a clinical history of the patient although this diagnosis is accompanied by tests for anemia, potential intestinal blockages, and toxic side effects of the substances consumed for example lead in pencils, paint or crayons, bacteria and parasites from dirt or stones from the rocks. These are the signs and symptoms to look out for.
- There is persistent eating, over a period of at least one month, of substances that are not food and do not provide nutritional value.
- The ingestion of a substance(s) that is not a part of culturally supported or socially normative practice for instance there are some cultures that promote eating clay as part of a medicinal practice.
- Typical substances ingested tend to vary with age and availability. These may include paper, soap, cloth, hair, string, wool, soil, chalk, talcum powder, paint, gum, metal, pebbles, charcoal, ash, clay, starch, or ice.
- The eating of these substances must be developmentally inappropriate. In children under the age of two years, mouthing objects or putting small objects in their mouth is a normal part of development which allows the child to explore their senses. Mouthing may sometimes result in ingestion so this can not be categorized as pica.
- Last but not least, those with pica are not averse to ingesting food.
Complications from pica typically range from posing a few health risks to life-threatening risks. Some of the complications that occur include; choking, poisoning, damaging the brain from eating lead or other harmful substances, developing ulcers, breaking teeth, gastrointestinal problems such as constipation, diarrhea and bloody stool as well as harming the digestive system like causing injuries to the throat.
What to do about Pica
Pica can occur during pregnancy, especially in women with nutrient deficits so let us begin here, women with unusual cravings during pregnancy should consult with a doctor for an iron test. It is important that pregnant women with pica resist the temptation to eat nonfood items as this could have harmful effects to the ‘bun’ in the oven. Finding distractions, such as chewing on something else preferably a food item, finding foods with a similar texture to eat, or doing something relaxing can be of help.
The truth is persons struggling with pica may realize that their cravings are unhealthful or unusual, but the urge to eat those nonfood items can still feel overwhelming which may cause frustrations if they are not able to act on these cravings. The right treatment is to deal with both the physical and psychological aspects of pica. Adults who come to the realization that they are struggling with pica or parents who identify this in their children are advised to consult a physician for professional help to change this behavior
Do you know someone who enjoys a behavior like what we have described? Share this with them and you could save a life.