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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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July 21 2011

Eating Earth: Exploring the Mysterious World of Geophagy

By Mark Sisson
120 Comments

A few weeks ago I got into an unusual conversation with a guy in a coffee shop. We were both passing through town – he for personal travel and me for business. We struck up a conversation waiting in line and ended up chatting for the remainder of our respective stops there. We talked about what we did, where we were headed, etc. When I mentioned the blog and the PB philosophy behind it, his face lit up. He loved the idea and had embraced similar principles several years prior. His latest experiment, the health effects of which he raved about, was adding dirt to his diet. I listened with interest and asked questions.

You all know I’m big on dirt, and more specifically, on probiotic supplementation. And while I’ve touched on the health benefits of dirt, the immune building properties of dirt consumption in children, and the connection between dirt and clinical depression in youngsters, I’ve never met anyone who made a personal habit of dirt ingestion. I’d heard of the practice in traditional societies, but it had always been one of those concepts I’d thought about in passing and tabled for another time. The idea has been on my mind ever since that exchange.

On the one hand, how more fundamental can it get than ingesting earth – the very source of sustenance (in one way or another)? There’s minerals, probiotics, and all manner of goodies to be had. On the other hand – lest we forget the more savage side of ecology – there are the less hospitable microbes, the more insidious creepy crawlies – (roundworm, anyone?). Though my conversation partner that day explained with pride and assurance that he obtained his dietary dirt from only the most trusted, meticulous, and local purveyor, I wondered if I could get past the Fear Factor element. He seemed so taken by its effects – the weight loss, the improved digestion, the higher energy. With some careful caveats, could it be worth eating dirt?

In truth, humans have been eating earth for as long as we’ve been around – and not just because Grok didn’t have a salad spinner. Geophagy has been observed throughout the world – everywhere from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, Asia to Australia. In the U.S., geophagy has figured into the culture of various indigenous cultures and to the past (and present) of the South, where experts believe native Africans who were brought as slaves introduced the practice.

It’s not just one of collective humanity’s hobby horses either. Scientists have studied geophagy in a host of other mammals as well, including elephants, wolves, and primates. Surely, this common a practice must have some kind of adaptive element?

A recent article from Lapham’s Quarterly traced the unusual, circuitous, and sometimes unsettling practice of geophagy in human history. (Those of you who count among your passions both history and food will appreciate the publication’s summer issue.) From a scientific angle, our understanding of geophagy has involved its crucial distinction from pica, the consumption of all varieties of non-edibles like coins, hair, soap, etc. Our view has also been colored by the interplay of cultures, the character of terrain and its vegetation, and the division between scientific and traditional approaches to health.

The article traces at length the career of Alexander Humboldt, an 18th and 19th century explorer, who first noted geophagy in the native population of a South American mission he visited. The indigenous Otomacs, Humboldt noted, ate a “‘prodigious quantity’” of “‘soft, unctuous clay” (which they called poya) that they obtained from particular areas of a nearby river bank. In fact, they not only ate it but meticulously collected it for routine seasonal storage. Humboldt was both floored and disgusted. Nonetheless, he was apparently hooked from then on. In the proceeding decades, he continued to study geophagy as it was observed around the world. His research “normalized” geophagy to the extent that people learned to associate it less with abnormal psychology and more with long-standing tradition across the globe, even in regions as “civilized” as Sweden and Finland.

Fast forward a couple centuries, and we’re still digging for the physiological roots of geophagy – the why. The who is pretty clear. Experts have noted that children and pregnant/child-bearing aged women are the most likely to practice geophagy, but it’s not limited to these demographics. As for the what, geophagy related earth is generally clay rather than soil. Where? How? Those who practice geophagy as their ancestors did in the same regions are as particular as the Otomacs were in harvesting said clay. Tribal/community wisdom passed down through the generations directs them to very specific sites. Usually, the clay is gathered by digging down a number of several inches – where microbial presence is substantially diminished compared to surface soil. Sometimes it is eaten as is. Other times it is mixed with water and used as a dip for food.

But why? Theories have abounded in scientific corners. Many experts traced the phenomenon to mineral supplementation. In other words, animals and humans ate earth to benefit from the nutrition of it – particularly minerals like calcium and iron. Numerous studies exist attempting to correlate anemia and earth eating. Some show that those who eat earth tend to be more iron deficient, but the earth routinely eaten by some of these groups is actually high in iron.  More questions arise from there. Is something in the earth they eat interfering with iron absorption? Were they already deficient before they started eating earth? Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Moreover, when anemic, geophagy-practicing children in one study were given iron supplementation, they still ate the clay. Is it culture then? Habit? Is it something else biological – or all of the above?

When scientists sampled earth from geophagic sites frequented by animals, they found that the earth contained only modest mineral content. In another study, however, scientists carefully compared earth samples taken directly from where the animals ate (“interior” earth) with those taken at the surface/other spots at the site. The samples taken where the animals had eaten actually showed more mineral content. (Now that’s a discerning palate!)

Just a few weeks ago, a meta-analysis on geophagy research was published that goes a long way in honing in on the sense behind the practice. Sera Young from Cornell University and her fellow researchers analyzed more than 300 recorded observations of animal geophagy and nearly 500 of human geophagy instances. The records related to particular practices, soil content, etc. pointed to a rationale that’s been gaining momentum in the past two decades.

Instead of hunger of mineral supplementation, Young and her team found the most compelling support for geophagy as digestive protection and support. Those who engage in geophagy the most often (children and pregnant women), the researchers noted, are the most “vulnerable” to “dietary chemicals, parasites, and pathogens.” The clays routinely eaten in geophagic practice showed little overall mineral content. They did, however, have one thing in common – clay content.

The clay itself, Young and others researchers have noted, is key. Certain kinds of clay has the power to ease stomach distress. Anyone who’s taken Kaopectate (pre-2003 in the U.S. and any year elsewhere) knows this. It acts as a natural binder to relieve diarrhea and can curb acidity. Bothered by nausea (as many pregnant women are)? Plagued by pathogen-induced diarrhea? It’s little wonder people traditionally sought out clay. It offers inherent medicinal properties.

But that’s not all. Specific clay varieties can actually enhance a person’s or animal’s nutritional potential. The types of geophagic clay ingested by animals and people disable toxic anti-nutrients found in regionally available plants. The knowledge that has been handed down – or instinct that was selected for – allowed people and animals to increase the variety of their diets and likely take advantage of alternative food sources when traditional foods were scarcer during inclement weather, pest infestation, etc. Young’s examination showed that both humans and animals benefitted from geophagy’s ability to counter natural plant toxins. The analysis affirms research done by others who have observed the effect of clay varieties on various natural toxins, including the glycoalkaloids of wild potatoes (PDF) or tannins in acorns.

Experts warn, however, that there’s an increasing danger to this traditional practice. For better and for worse, few if any of us across the globe live in Grok’s world anymore. Agricultural and industrial pollutants have found their way into corners more remote than we could possibly imagine. Even soil in less industrialized countries is bearing the chemical stamp of modernity. One recent study analyzed samples of African soil that was sold for geophagic purposes in various parts of Africa, Europe, and the U.S. Of particular concern to the researchers were the microbe and lead levels. Small levels of mercury and cadmium were also present.

Nonetheless, geophagy continues – in many traditional societies and in more “modern” regions where an increasing number of people are exploring geophagy’s protective and therapeutic effects. I’ve heard that some are using particular clay varieties to treat systemic cases of Candida or Crohn’s. I find the potential of traditionally eaten clays like kaolin, bentonite, and attapulgite – especially for these kinds of applications – compelling. As for obtaining pristine stores or supplements of these varieties, I’m not so won over.

Perhaps some of you in the Primal community practice or know folks who practice geophagy. Maybe you have sources – like the gentleman I met – who you know and trust. Maybe you have personal access to these kinds of clays and have the local resources to get your source thoroughly tested. That would be the way to do it, I’d say.

For the rest of us, there’s this. While it’s clear that geophagy played a role in our species’ evolution, we’re fortunate to have access to good sanitation and an infinite variety of foods that don’t require special formulations to aid digestion. I think there’s value in understanding how our ancestors lived and learned to thrive in their environments. There’s also value, however, in embracing the options we have today.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Let me know what you think. I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts.

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120 thoughts on “Eating Earth: Exploring the Mysterious World of Geophagy”

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  1. This is REALLY interesting. I had no idea that people were deliberately eating dirt, though I do remember all the warnings about “pica” in What to Expect When You’re Expecting!

    My little brother was a big dirt eater when we were kids. I remember being at the pediatrician’s office with him while my mom asked the doctor for tips on how to get him to stop.

    “Aah, don’t worry about it!” the pediatrician told my surprised mom. “It’ll be good for his immune system!”

    I’m not sure if he was old school, or ahead of his time!

    1. I agree, in fact, I was a kid (and am an adult) who doesn’t shy away from dirt on or in my food. I don’t go out of my way to dig up a good patch of earth for a meal, but I always thought a little dirt can’t hurt.

    2. He was probably old school – folks from earlier generations knew all this stuff already because they were not affected by media and big buisiness/pharma to the extent that we are today.

  2. Wow, interesting!!

    My mom would always say to me, “Everyone eats a cup of dirt before they die.” She was always very anti- antibacterials and being uber clean.

    I think it worked out well!!

    Currently I rarely wash (organic) veggies – why bother? Especially when you are cooking root veggies like burdock, the little bit of dirt gives it some extra flavor 😉

    1. I was like that until the day I pulled lettuce from my garden, put it in my salad bowl, and barely avoided eating a piece of slug poop. It was gross. 🙂

      1. My cousin found a caterpillar in her soup from a Chinese restaurant once…

        While laughing about that experience over a salad from a farmer’s market… She bit into a slug. Talk about gross. Haha!

  3. Eat dirt as in eat dirt? Not just because there is some on the carrot you dug up?

    Crazy. Insane. Something I would only think about doing if I was dying.

    Your last statement Mark…

    I have been looking at how we may have lived in the past and how we live today and am doing my absolute best to combine the best of both worlds.

    I am all about having less, minimizing and am about to go crazy with it. I believe in memories. In friends and family. In exploring the world.

    I’ll have a fridge and chest freezer in my home. That is a given. I will also fly around the world.

    But I won’t eat dirt. I’ll go camping. I’ll go backpacking. Then I’ll return home and sleep in a bed for nights on end.

    So much fun!

  4. I’ve heard of and considered eating/using montmorillonite clay, which is essentially some special dirt. I never did it, but perhaps a little in a smoothie might not be detectable?

    1. I’ve seen that clay listed in some specialty dog foods and always wondered why it was included…

  5. I’m so glad you wrote about this Mark! I secretively eat dirt all the time. When I go play at the park, hike in the mountains, climb trees or walk on my hands in the dirt, I always lick my fingers afterwards. It’s so great to hear of someone out there who openly makes a habit of this in our society.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. I just read about this in Weston Price’s book (surprise surprise, that book contains valuable information on everything). It really is amazing how much knowledge is contained in the traditions passed down by our ancestors. While medical science is now approaching decades of research, our ancestors were figuring out things and passing down the knowledge for thousands of years. It is amazing how quickly our society has dismissed this knowledge.

  7. I’ve been eating dirt for over a year now.
    It’s called Azomite and has ALL minerals and trace minerals present in the correct ratio. It’s being supplemented for animals fed grains, legumes or a pasture deficient in soil minerals. It counteracts the effects of high phosphorus in a high grain,legume diet and is given to most sport horses so they don’t break a leg when stumbling.
    It makes hair and nails grow twice as fast and super strong. It also counters the effects of foods that are acidic forming. Weak poultry legs quickly recover to their full strength and chicken yolks end up more orange with an egg that has a hard, thick shell.
    When thrown out into the garden everything grows twice as fast and twice as thick (weeds, too, just a heads up). My tree gained 2 feet in height this year from supplementing Azomite into the ground. The usual height gain every year is about 1 foot and 2 inches. Also, a bush that has never grown, finally has awoken and gained new branches and new height of 1/2 a foot…after 4 years of not growing.

    I highly recommend it. I lick my finger and dip it into a jar of Azomite powder every day with meals.
    It is also recommended by the Weston A. Price Foundation.

    1. Just out of interest,is there any particular grade or type that you get? I eat Celtic Sea Salt, which has plenty of minerals, though I guess in levels not so high as this.

      1. I bought 4 bags of 44 lbs of Azomite, directly from an Azomite Dealer about 10 miles from my house. I’m not sure if you’d get the exact quality buying online in smaller bags from stores that might call their clay Azomite, but might not be.
        I had a really long conversation with my Azomite Dealer, and he assured me that this is completely clean and healthy and all of his life stock + his entire family, children and grandchildren take Azomite daily. This guy was in his mid 60’s with a full set of white hair and a healthy skin you don’t see often in older people. He looked extremely robust and showed no sign of aging other than his white halo.
        At the Azomite web site you can find a dealer close to you and read about what Azomite is and does. I’ve checked each mineral and its amount and it’s the exact ratio needed by all life forms. The heavy metals are extremely low AND in their natural form and always have the mineral present that neutralizes that specific metal. Like selenium does mercury for example.
        I don’t trust the store bought ‘clays’ because they’re the same ‘clay’ used to drill through rock to get to oil or other natural resources…but they also use chemicals on the drilling machine which end up in the store clay. I believe the store clays are a waste product sold as a health food supplement.

        I also use Celtic Sea Salt and Himalayan Rock Salt. Rock Salts get chelated by the body through saturated fats and your own stomach juices. On top of all this I make a weekly bone broth from cattle bones. After simmering knuckle bone for about 24 hours with a spoon full of vinegar, the bone is so soft you can scrape it with your fingernails. This is a good time to scrape more minerals off the bone and make your own bone meal. Mortar and pestle comes in handy 🙂

        1. Thanks for your reply, Primal Palate. 🙂 Unfortunately,after doing some digging around, it seems like it will be a bit hard to come by where I am (UK). The best I could easily do locally is French Montmorillonite, or Bentonite orginating from Wyoming. I’m not exactly sure how they compare to Azomite.

          Glad for the info! 🙂

        2. I have been cycling Azomite for about 7 months now. I usually take a teaspoon before bed with CALM and Arginine powder.
          My question has always been dosage as there are so many conflicting reports as to how much to take in order to reap the benefits. What say you regarding dosage?

      2. Also, Azomite isn’t treated in any way like the other commercial clays you might find.
        It comes in its raw form, not treated with heat or chemicals.
        This is the only clay/limestone that I take. It also makes an excellent skin paste for oily folks with acne.
        Some people use it to dry wash their hair. If you’d like to be shampoo free, sprinkle it over your hair, rub into scalp and rinse out with filtered water (no chlorine).

    2. As soon as I read the article I came to the comments section to see if I’d be the first to mention Azomite. You beat me.

      I bought about $10 worth of Azomite a few years ago, and still have plenty left. It’s as reasonably priced as it is minerally rich.

      1. I read something earlier in the day that said azomite has lead in it…
        Opinions???

        1. If you’ve ever opened a can of food and eaten it chances are you’ve eaten more lead than you would in a year of consuming 1/2 a teaspoon of azomite a day.
          The major exposure of lead to the general population in food is through fruits and grains, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Public Health Service. Lead in the food chain comes mostly from direct deposit from the air to plants (gasoline and industrial polutants)and from livestock eating soil laced with lead as they eat the plants. The bans on leaded gasoline and paint have reduced exposure (3).

          Precautions that can be taken to reduce your exposure to lead in food include, avoiding the use of glazed pottery and pewter dishes to serve or store food, avoiding the storage of beverages in leaded glass decanters, keeping the home clean and as dust free as possible, eating a variety of foods, and eating foods rich in calcium, iron and Vitamin C so your body will absorb less lead from specific food sources that have been exposed to lead.
          In another study Calcium greatly reduced the uptake of Lead in Lunge, Blood, Liver, Brain, Skin, Skeleton and Kidneys.

          If you’re taking in adequate dietary calcium your body will take up calcium rather than Lead.
          The amount of lead in azomite naturally occuring and not coming from pollution is 6.2ppm. The total calcium of an entire scoop of azomite powder is 3.6%. There is a million times more calcium in Azomite than lead making lead uptake almost non existant.

  8. I’m simple – I’ll take my dirt with my veggies.

    No real reason to go hog wild and just eat dirt. Plus I don’t really care for the taste.

  9. Yeah…. Danial Vitalis was all over this making vids about 2 weeks ago with an angle on the detox properties of the clay which wasn’t touched upon here.
    He’s got a nice vid about making toothpaste with clay as well.

  10. Thanks to my older brother, I probably injested enough dirt in my childhood to last me a lifetime.
    I, of course, didn’t appreciate the dirt force-feedings at the time but with this enlightening info I am thinking of calling my brother and thanking him. Not!

  11. Very interesting post. I was a dirt eater as a child. Eating dirt is one of my earliest memories. I had two intense cravings. One was dirt, the other burnt match ends. Since a lot of people smoked in those days, I had a nearly endless supply of match ends…

    I still occasionally crave both, but don’t partake. I was premature, and anemic. My ankle still bears the scar of a cut-down that was done to give me a blood transfusion.

    Relatively new to MDA, but loving it, and implementing changes.

  12. There is a market here for some entreperneurial individual. Don’t be surprised if you see me selling packaged and branded dirt for consumption by only the most discerning consumers.

  13. Hailing from Georgia, I have heard about this for years. There is a white clay common to South Georgia (Kaolin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaolin )that was eaten by locals as an appetite suppressant or a cure for upset stomachs. Haven’t ever tried it myself, but I don’t suppose next time I’m down in that part of the state I just might.

    Regards,
    David

  14. I have heard of people ingesting diatomaceous earth, (food grade for human use).
    Personally I don’t mind a bit of dirt on an occasional veggie, but I don’t think I’d purposely ingest it.

    1. Diatomaceous earth is sold as “Kieselerde” in any German drugstore in the supplement section. Often Kieselerde is also just Silicon dioxide, that is sand, quartz. It is supposed to be good for hair, skin and bones.

  15. I like your ending.

    ” I think there’s value in understanding how our ancestors lived and learned to thrive in their environments. There’s also value, however, in embracing the options we have today.”

    this actually transcends this post to the idea of your blog in general. More tolerant and reasonable approach to paleo. Thanks Marks!

  16. Very interesting. I wonder though, if using the “5 second rule” when you drop bugers on the ground garners the same effect?

  17. Bentonite clay is the main ingredient in many colon cleanse kits, and good quality brands are readily available on the health food store shelves. Clay is outstanding for removing debris from the colon, and can also adsorb or bind to toxic elements in the gut.

    Edible clays are highly absorptive. Mix a tablespoon in some juice or glass of water, then follow with at least 8 ounces of more water to help it go through without problems.

  18. Wow. This entire article was news to me. Interesting stuff. Now I’m going to wait for the person who creates and starts selling their own “nutrient dense soil-food.”

  19. While I don’t eat dirt, per se, I’ve gone through a couple bottles of bentonite clay for detoxification purposes. Our ancestors apparently consumed “earth” to offset the more medicinal and alkaloid rich plants in their diet, which we don’t normally encounter today. We have a different set of toxins to deal with, from all the synthetic chemicals in our environment, to heavy metals and nuclear isotopes. Earth elements like clay and zeolites absorb and adsorb these bad guys and allow us to pass them out through the bowels. Poison control centers often prescribe activated charcoal to absorb ingested poison. It’s my belief that detoxification is an important part of any serious health regimen, and consuming clay is certainly one viable option. Probably a good idea to procure clay from a reputable source though.

  20. The mention of clay aiding digestion reminds me of something I saw on a David Attenbourough documentary about an animal – I thought it was the capybara, but I can’t find anything about it at the moment; something similar, at any rate – which eats a variety of plants so if one of them is poisonous, it doesn’t get enough to really hurt it, and it also eats clay for the same reason, to protect it from any toxins it might inadvertently ingest by absorbing anything dodgy.

  21. Thank you Mark, for another fascinating piece of human history. I joined the MDA community only two weeks ago but have read close to fifty of your articles, and I’m always surprised about what your words have to offer. Knowing where we came from, but taking advantage of our modern opportunities seems like the ideal path to follow, for me at least.

    I went primal the very day that I stumbled across your website two weeks ago. After dealing with a corn allergy for years, lactose intolerance, and recently a gluten intolerance, making the jump to full primal after cruising your website for an hour was simple, indeed enjoyable, and I haven’t looked back. These past two weeks have without a doubt been the healthiest of my life. Thank you for everything that you do!

  22. “In the U.S., geophagy has figured into the culture of various indigenous cultures and to the past (and present) of the South, where experts believe native Africans who were brought as slaves introduced the practice.”

    I’d be sceptical of that claim.

    One of the best known of the early Spanish narratives, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca’s from 1542 mentions it. I doubt the native inhabitants of the South were waiting for outsiders to show them the practice, and in any case such people would have been very few in this far north in the early 16th century.

    Here are the references:

    “They swallow earth and wood, and all they can get, the dung of deer and more things I do not mention; and I verily believe, from what I saw, that if there were any stones in the country they would eat them also. They preserve the bones of the fish they eat, of snakes and other animals, to pulverize them and eat the powder.”

    Also:

    “This mezquiquez is a fruit which, while on the tree, is very bitter and like the carob bean. It is eaten with earth and then becomes sweet and very palatable. The way they prepare it is …”

    http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/one/cabeza.htm

  23. Gosh, I would have thought the benefit eating soil would have been related to the vast array of microbial life in nearly all soil.

    1. Hey, he’s gotta talk about something.

      Open your mind dude. This is real history here, no one’s making this up. And there’s plenty of evidence for why dirt or clay was beneficial. What did you not get about the posts talking of current uses of bentonite clay?

  24. I first found out about the uses of Bentonite clay in facial cleansers and masks. Didn’t think much of it until my husband started using my cleanser and said not only did it clear up his acne, but even though he hadn’t used it on his head, it helped his dandruff as well. When he would get a dandruff flare up, it would coincide with a gum inflammation. And this stuff runs in his family. So from then on we would make sure to have Bentonite in the house. Later, he tried edible Bentonite for digestive issues. Again, it helped.

    There is no magic involved. Bentonite is highly ad sorbtive and is used in many applications where it’s necessary to adsorb toxic materials or even cat pee in cat litter. On the skin, it pulls stuff out of your pores better than anything else we had tried. Any stubborn microbial critters simply get sucked up and rinsed away. Anecdotal evidence shows that some American Indians ate Bentonite clay when ill, as well as used it on their skin.

    Now, I wouldn’t eat the dirt in my yard, but a closer look at geophagy uncovers simple solutions like the use of clay to heal.

    1. See my post below for a story on a serious dirt-eating habit. I had access to Bentonite clay as well, but didn’t like the taste at all. So interesting how particular one’s tastes can get when you are mineral deficient!

  25. I have probably at least 100 lbs of dried kaolin porcelain clay sitting on my garage porch.

    I have been trying to give it away but after reading this post thought maybe it is valuable as a dietary supplement rather than just as clay to make pots.

    After doing some investigation, one site said this clay probably came from one of several southern states and probably has some radioactive properties in it. That is not good news.

    Maybe I should get it tested. If it is “clean” it may be a ticket to making some money. Hmmmm

  26. I was all about eating dirt when I was a kid but only because I thought the white playground sand might taste like sugar and the dark brown dirt might taste like chocolate. How sad was I when they didn’t!

    Every couple of months, I’d try again, just to be sure.

    So now that we’ve talked about geophagy, can we talk about entomophagy?? I’ve been thinking of adding crickets to my diet.

    1. Which doesn’t necessarily mean much. Homosexuality used to be in the DSM at one point too. Science progresses, and often proves its earlier hypotheses wrong or incomplete.

      I also find it exceedingly likely that some people who eat dirt do it for obsessive, pathological reasons, and some people do it for physiological reasons to try to correct some deficiency, and some people do it because it is tradition in their culture. Many reasons, some good, some bad, some indifferent, for the same behavior.

  27. This makes me wonder if chewing on wood and bark might have health benefits. Pine bark extract is supposed to be good for oral health and pine bark tea is supposed to be anti-scurvy.
    http://www.bastyrcenter.org/content/view/770/
    What I love to chew and scrape with my teeth are bones, speficially soft ones after they are boiled for a while. If you boil them long enough you can actually chew them up and swallow them like their marrow.. though the one time I ate a significant portion of bone I had bad gas all evening and night and had a weird feeling in my gut and extremly hard poop the next day, verging on constipation. I think there must be some benefit from consuming a little bone matter though, which I’ve done numerous times without any perceivable negative effects .. You are what you eat.. so why not eat what you are? (not promoting cannibilasm, just the consumption of similar tissues to our own)

    1. Pine bark extract is good for a hell of a lot more than what you listed. Ever heard of Pycnogenol???

  28. Hey, what’s up with the quotation marks surrounding civilized while mentioning Sweden? >_< Any more of that and my backyard polar bear might be upset, similar to a wookie losing a game of friendly chess…

  29. One of my supervisors, a psychologist, once told us a story about a pregnant woman whose family was sending her clay from Georgia to Ohio so that she could eat it while she was pregnant.

    She got diagnosed with Pica and I believe Borderline Intellectual Functioning (hopefully not just due to the clay-eating :))

    So just a warning, if you tell a mental health professional you’re eating clay or dirt, you’re probably still going to get diagnosed with Pica. Honestly, as a professional, I would still diagnose someone with it, regardless of today’s post.

    1. Bah! @ pyschology. There’s a disorder to categorize almost everyone. I’ve been diagnosed with schizoid personality desorder because my parents forced me into rehab where I sat through the boring group therapy instead of participating, which apparently makes me antisocial and withdrawn. When asked what I like to do by the psychologist I said spend a lot of time in nature and climb trees. That didn’t help my case. I wouldn’t be surprised if some psychologists got together and labelled those who embrace the PB as afflicted by “evolutionary regressive disorder”.

      1. You unfortunately did not have the right support from either good parents or good therapists. Sorry, sounds like you’ve been through quite a bit. I have too and can relate.

    2. I’m a true believer in psychology and may go to school so that I can practice therapy one day. I find what you say to be judgemental and harsh-not looking good for you if your actually considering practicing therapy or you already are. There’s a lot of crappy therapists out there. I’ve been spoiled with a few of the very best- Open minded, compassionate, non-judgemental, super empathic/empathetic, super intelligent, highly highly educated(Ph.D.’s), and totally down to earth.

  30. “I think there’s value in understanding how our ancestors lived and learned to thrive in their environments. There’s also value, however, in embracing the options we have today.” Well said. I don’t think I could go from scrubbing the dirt off my veggies to deliberately eating dirt. But to each his own and if it works for you……

  31. The first thing that came to mind when I started reading this was an episode of TLC’s “My Strange Addiction” where a teen African-American female named Bianca was addicted to eating clay pots. That addiction does not seem quite as unusual now.

  32. My favorite way to get dirt is to not rinse my salad crops when I pull ’em out of the garden. Harvest them straight into the mouth. Some people think it’s gross, I’ve always said “a little dirt never hurt anyone”.

    I can’t see me sitting down to a plate of it though.

  33. I would be curious to hear from a doctor if this might increase instances of kidney stones… Any thoughts?

  34. Oh wow! I’ve never seen anyone blog on this topic! I went through a serious dirt and rock eating phase for a while. You know how when you see someone do something really weird, you think, “how does that even get started?” Well, I had a uterine fibroid that caused me to bleed something like 12-15 days a month. I didn’t know it at the time. I just had these really bad periods. After a few months of this, I was growing weaker and weaker. One day, I came home from work and on a bookshelf right next to my door at eye-level was a small stack of sandstone I’d picked out of a riverbed near my childhood home in Arizona. They SMELLED so good. They smelled amazing. From like a foot away, I could smell them. They were just sitting there, being rocks. Without dropping my bag, I picked one up and sniffed it. I loved that familiar desert smell. I wet it with my tongue which reminded me of the smell of the desert in rain. I inhaled deeply, remembering my childhood and reveling in the SMELL! It was earth, mineral… desert… I scraped my teeth against the rock a little. Some of it came off in my mouth. It was this sensation.

    Every day, I would come home and there would be the rocks by my door. I would stand there mindlessly, backpack still on, shoes on, gnawing on one of my sandstones. I probably started with a large handful of pink and red sandstone. By the end of summer, I’d consumed it ALL. I also got into French Red clay, which is like a fine powder. It was sold in the bath and body section of my store as a face mask… no chemicals or fragrances, just deep red clay. In the middle of applying it to my face one day, I breathed it in, then touched some to my tongue. That too became part of my diet. It was intoxicating! Forbidden! Delicious!

    Soon I branched out. Interesting looking rocks on the beach would get sampled. Pieces of charcoal from a fire. My favorite tea was Numi Dry Desert Lime because it smelled like dirt. I ate toasted buckwheat and untoasted unhulled sesame seeds by the bowlfull. Literally, just a bowl of crunchy dry seeds, not cooked, no water, because it gave me the feeling of eating gravel.

    Finally, I went to see a doctor, because I was also weak and tired all the time. I thought I was HIV positive. He took one look at me and said, “I bet you have iron deficiency anemia!” He ordered some tests and my hemoglobin levels were down to 8 or 9, when the standard for women shouldn’t be below 12.1 gm/dl.

    After a few months of hardcore iron supplements my cravings went away and I was functional again!

    So, thanks for this post. It was great to learn more about this curious condition I had!

    Oh… and a quick scan of the comments causes me to add: I was never sick with the flu or cold during this time. Just extremely low in the hemoglobin department. And I picked up a lot of stuff off the ground from questionable sources!

    1. This makes me think of my recent wild catnip binge. I made tea with it a couple times in the past and was fairly indifferent to it. Then the other day I was walking down a trail and smelled some and it was irresistible. I immediately went about picking it, mostly the flowers, and putting it in my water bottle. Maybe I didn’t like it before because I used boiled water while lately I’ve only been using cold water. I had to keep refilling it because I was chugging it down.
      I looked it up online later and found out that besides being a plant you can use for tea it’s also edible so later when I came across a big patch of it beside another trail I started eating the leaves. I thought I’d devour the whole patch at first because I was munching ravenously until suddenly it didn’t taste as good and I didn’t want to drink any more of the tea until later that day, though I’ve been making tea with it regularly since. When I walk by some it looks and smells so enticing, and it’s organic and free!
      For anyone who doesn’t know you can also eat clover (tastes like spinach / other leafy greens) and dandelions (tastes like bitter spinach.. the stems in my opinion are nasty but the leaves and roots are ok and the flowers are fairly good).
      For catnip info you can read this:
      http://ezinearticles.com/?Health-Benefits-of-Catnip&id=2260109

    2. Your story was just fascinating to me. Especially the part about being able to SMELL stuff! Thank you for sharing! It just shows how different we all are! And what’s really sad is that sometimes that difference is construed as weird or sick or whatever even if it seems “natural” to us!

      Many years ago, I also had a major problem with fibroids — excessive bleeding got hemoglobin level down to 4.7. (Ended up with surgery but only after getting hemoglobin levels up to a safer range.)

      But I never had the urge you had to ingest rocks, dirt, minerals (literally! minerals!) from the soil. I never ingested any soil type substances, but found myself craving the hiking and need (and I do mean NEED) to be on the trail or out in the wild (read: High Sierra in California or Bryce Canyon in Utah) where there’s a lot of dust, etc. This was especially prevalent when I was having major health issues. So instead of causing problems, could breathing in dirt also be a mineral source even if it’s coming in through the lungs and not the digestive system? Makes you wonder as we keep getting warned about pneumonia and such.

      Somehow I’m making a connection thanks to your post. The best of luck to you and I certainly hope you’re doing OK now. Thanks again for your story!

  35. Some of my friends in grade school ate dirt regularly. I only chewed up sand when I face planted on the playground. I see no reason not to eat dirt if it’s clean, but I’ll try anything so don’t follow me!

    1. WHat has been you experience with Fulvic Acid? I have been taking Azomite Powder only.

  36. I fail to see how this is so “weird”. I take MezoTrace, essentially dirt packed into pill form. I feed there supplement to my horses too. My horses and dogs will dig and lick certain places here and just eat the dirt. I figured it was for the minerals. We do have clay in the soil, though so that makes sense too.

    1. My dogs here in Texas do the same thing…what appears to be eating mud or
      dirt…I thought they were insane…but
      now…

  37. This reminds me of a humorous essay by Roy Blount, Jr.: I Don’t Eat Dirt Personally. “I’m a Southerner who lives in the north,” Blount said, “so I have to explain lots of things. I picked up a New York Times and read: ‘Old Southern Custom of Eating Dirt Seen on the Wane.’ Not as many Southerners are eating dirt as used to.

    “I knew I was going to be asked about this at some fashionable soiree, and sure enough a woman with a crew cut came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t know that you ate dirt.’ There are two ways you can go on this. You can either take the Jimmy Carter route and say ‘Well, to tell you the truth there are some perfectly nice folks who do eat clay for digestive reasons, but I personally don’t eat clay and no one in my ­family eats it. And I don’t know anyone who eats clay.’

    “But if you go that way, people will say, ‘Here’s a guy who eats dirt and he’s ashamed of it.’ So I would take the Billy Carter approach and say, ‘Hell, yes, we eat dirt! If you haven’t had any blackened red dirt, you don’t know what’s good for you!’ I thought about opening a chain of dirt restaurants. Once it’s been in The New York Times, people will eat it.”

      1. dirt is filth. soil and earth are nutrient rich plant nurseries.

  38. this reminds me of a my dog eating grass sometimes (maybe weekly), why would this be?

    1. As far as I know, sometimes carnivores eat plant matter to help them throw up and purge their stomachs while other times they eat it to help cleanse their bowels in the same way fibre helps us. I think I might have read that on this site actually.

      1. I remember one time my friend and I were out playing in the forest with his dog and it ate a bunch of bark off of vines. We came back inside and started chasing it around a room and wrestling with it and when my friend was on his back putting the dog in a headlock with his legs it threw up, all over his upper body and face, including in his mouth.

  39. What an interesting article! When I was about three years old, my mother tried houseplants and after seeing the dirt that she had baked in the oven for the plants, I was inspired to eat it. I am told I only took one bite and that was enough for me. It was probably the texture =)

    Now, for example when I cut lettuce from my garden, I don’t wash it. There may be a few flecks of dirt, and I make sure there aren’t [m]any bugs and such, but I figure that a little bit of dirt from my land will probably do me a lot of good! However, stuff I get at the farmers market? Yes, I wash, because I don’t know exactly where everything comes from.

    1. And a funny story I forgot to post… our neighbor where we lived last year grew organic veggies in his backyard. He gave some lettuce to a couple college girls renting one of his houses. He later found the lettuce in the garbage and asked them what was wrong with it. They said it had dirt on it so they thought it had gone bad. Guess they were of the breed who thinks veggies grow on grocery shelves.

  40. It’s important to remember that the GI tract is technically entirely “outside” the body. We’re a tube within a tube. So a substance ingested does not enter the body until it crosses the intestinal barrier and into the lymphatic or the circulatory system.

  41. Seems that I’ve found what to eat during IF.

    Eating clay really makes sense. I also have vague memories from early childhood of some kids eating ash and licking chalk.

  42. Well Mark, you’ve done it again. So often, I open up your blog, glance at the headline, and think, “What the hell is he talking about now?” but by the end of the article, you have me nodding and saying, “That actually sounds like a decent idea.” Can’t say I’ll be scouring the Internet for edible clay anytime soon, but I sure appreciate the article.

  43. Hi Mark,

    I read your today’s news letter with astonishment; in Europe it is a quite common thing (old home recipe) to eat earth, manly if you have digesting problems or stomach flu. You can buy what the German call Heilerde (Healing Earth) and the French Argile, in almost every pharmacy, you get the stuff in the form of powder, in capsules, or in applicators. A few people eat it also for the mineral content.

    Michael

  44. Hmmm, I remember as a kid having an overwhelming desire to eat anything clay-like… even play-doh. Although I never did, I did taste it though and it wasn’t terrible. I couldn’t look at it though without salivating.

  45. Haha, I tought I was the only weirdo doing that Paul 😀 I loved the smell of play-doh as a kid! I tasted it a couple of times and didn’t like it, but if it was blue, I tried it again and again. Other blue things aswell. It looked so good! 🙂

  46. this is such a great post! where i grew up, they would sell clay “cookies” in the marketplace. they were just dried clay shaped into neat forms. they could be eaten dry or boiled in water to make a “soup”.

    i would hesitate to eat clay on a daily basis because it IS so effective at drawing things from the colon that some nutrients don’t get absorbed. other than that, some clay (bentonite particularly) is really quite tasty in some water.

    1. Woah … this has pulled something up from the old archives.

      This is stone soup. My granddad used to talk about it when I was little, but I never entirely knew what he meant. He used to say that when things were hard “in the old country”, people used to boil up stones for soup, and I used to think “what? Like pebbles?” and be very confused becasue I didn’t understand how you could eat pebbles.

    2. Hello Jenny, I am interested in learning more about where you are from and your experience with geophagy, may it be yourself, family or friends etc… I am an visual artist in the Atlanta area and have recently been learning about geophagy and geophagists and want to explore this subject for my future work. Any information that you could give me would be helpful. Any stories or experiences or contacts. I want to give geophagists a voice and a story that I believe is relevant in my work. I hope that you can help!! 🙂

  47. Being a budding geologist since my early teens, I have read about the traditional cultures eating clay back when I was 12 or so. There is a layer of clay in Crima that they call ‘chocolate clays’ that looks almost eadible (it is not nutritious though), so in our hungry student field school years we joked about having some. But I have never experienced the desire to eat clay. I will stick to what grows in the dirt, I think 🙂

  48. I used to eat small dirt clumps as a child. Never got sick from it. but it wasn’t clay. It was topsoil. The area had been forest in the past and was cleared for house building. But an area of about a thousand square yards was never developed and a field of wild flowers and weeds grew there. Me and some neighborhood kids would pull some weeds, smooth the dirt, draw a ring and play marbles. We would also eat some of the small clumps of dirt. That time period was from about 1950 to about 56. When I read about all the stuff in refined carbs and modern food, those little dirtballs as we called them, start to look appealing. Great post!

  49. It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think I’ll be sprinkling dirt on my lentil soup tomorrow. The pollutants, etc. seem like a difficult hurdle to overcome. But maybe there’s a future for dirt farmers. 🙂

  50. You mentioned it, but it should be stressed, that “clay” is not “dirt”. Clay beds were laid down sometimes millions of years ago … like salt deposits. If they are in the mountains, they are unlikely to be contaminated by anything. And historically, they were often “baked” which would get rid of parasites. Some clays are way better than others, which is why certain deposits were popular, with both natives and with animals, such as parrots, that eat the clay to neutralize toxic berries.

    There is a lot of research on clay use for animals. Clay helps prevent birth defects caused by mycotoxins, and normalizes gut flora for sick cows. But more important, it was pretty much part of everyone’s lives back when … we lived on dirt floors, drank water that was sitting on clay usually. I think the clay DOES interfere with absorptions of some things, but they are the things we don’t get along with, usually. Iron is a weird one, because although we need it, we usually have too much of it unless we have parasites (giving iron supplements to the Maasai makes them more prone to illness).

    Anyway, I’ve been taking clay on and off for years, and it’s only done good things. It might cause constipation if you aren’t getting enough fiber (it makes the food digest more thoroughly, so there is less bulk). It has saved many a family member from cases of “food poisoning”. In one case, someone I know was at a retreat where everyone who ate the chicken got very ill. She took her clay, got better in half an hour or so, then dosed everyone else who would take it. They all got better too. It might seem weird, but IT WORKS and it’s cheap.

  51. Growing up we played all day out in the woods, rode our horses and every time we ate something our hands had dirt on them ad we didn’t care, we ate the dirt to, also my dad was a survival instructor in Wash State back in the 70’s& they were taught to eat stuff from the dirt w/out rinsing in off, so I learned that to..Ok, so now I do rinse stuff & wash my hands more, but my mother always told me the reason I don’t have any allergies,don’t have asima & no real health issues is due to eating dirt”not intentional”… So to make a long story short, when I see someone with a baby, I say ” Let them eat dirt” build up that little immune system…

  52. Just now reading “Life on the Mississippi” and Twain talks about the old timers, which would have been early 1800’s, not letting sediment settle in drinking water from the river but stirring it up. Touting benefits much as described. I had not taken it as literal truth,but I suppose it was.

  53. I buy bentonite clay from Mountain Rose Herbs. If you drink it, mix about a teaspoon in a small glass of water, let it sit a few minutes, and drink it, trying to drink the clay itself after it settles, although that’s not necessary because it the water becomes like a colloidal solution, full of trace minerals. But swallowing the clay is beneficial to the digestion. Follow that with anothe glass of water to help it through your body.
    You can also use the clay in a bath. Add some hot water, mix about a cup of clay, mix thoroughly to help it dissolve, then add tepid or warm water and soak. This will draw impurities out of your body. Masks work the same way.

  54. I for one love it when my mom cooks collards for me, because they’re always gritty from where they’re not washed off.

    And I also used to eat my own mud pies when I was a kid.

  55. Alex Grace mentioned stone soup from when things were hard “in the old country”, people used to boil up stones for soup… ah, they had stone soup in the U.S. too.

    Dolly Parton told Johnny Carson about how her mother would send her out into the fields when she was very young and poor to pick out a stone for the soup.

  56. I was practicing geophagy but I had know idea there was a name for it! I took bentonite clay for a long time to treat really bad candida when I was a child. I also went off sugar, yeast and wheat at the time. I wish I’d known about Primal back then and I would have cut out all grains! But the clay mixed with caproil and psyllium seed husks really did clean out the system, but I think there must be a less damaging way to do it!

  57. Hi folks, i had an interesting past when in my childhood I have ingested dirt in forms of bricks, cement, chalk, slate pencil, fuller’s earth, plater of paris , wall putty , wall plaster and mud.

    Have given it all up after i turned 15 and almost lost my 4 teeth due to erosion.

    I still sometimes have cravings for all of these but have turned more sensible ass to not to ingest such things which harm you later in life.

    I feel healthier and have developed a strong liking for fruits and veggies ever since I decided not to have dirt.

    Good luck to all…

  58. I eat a yes cup size of clay a day when available, and am always anaemic

  59. African Elephants eat lots of dirt! Scientists tagged several elephants with trackers and studied their migrational patterns for a year. The elephants had gatherings at specific sites. When the researchers visited these sites, they found barren patches of land. Elephants “mine” the earth for the rich mineral content.

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  61. what is the environmental effect of geophagy? many women especially pregnant eat soil in zambia. infact it is sold in markets

  62. I wouldn’t buy jack squat clay from the store or online. Those bastards get ahold of every supplement and surely clay companies then ruin it with some poison. Dig it up in your own area. Clay is abundant in most places. I’d trust my own soil any day before I trust something these assholes sell you. My wife bought some clay online. I tried it in water and it was like chalk. My own red clay from Ga goes down nice and smooth with no taste.