What's Up with Pica?
Pica is the name for a condition in which a person craves nonfood substances, such as dirt (geophagia), soap, laundry starch, ice, or chalk. The word “pica” actually comes from the Latin word for magpie, a bird known for eating just about anything. Pica is seen in young children and, less commonly, in pregnant women. Pica seems to occur more in African-American women and in those women who have a family or childhood history of pica.
Most women have cravings while pregnant, but most crave food substances. Pica cravings are less common, but they do occur. Because pregnant women who practice pica risk the chance of being exposed to toxicants such as lead and other harmful substances, your doctor should be notified immediately if you experience these types of cravings.
The most common substances related to pica cravings include dirt, clay, and laundry starch. Others include burnt matches, stones, charcoal, mothballs, ice, cornstarch, soap, sand, toothpaste, plaster, baking soda, paint chips, cigarette ashes, and coffee grounds.
Causes and Effects of Pica
The cause of pica is not really known. There is speculation that pica cravings occur as a result of the body's attempt to obtain vitamins and minerals that it is not getting from foods. The American Dietetic Association feels there is a possible connection between pica and iron deficiency. Still others suspect pica could be related to probable underlying physical or mental illnesses.
A pregnant woman who gives in to these unusual cravings and eats these nonfood substances can potentially harm herself and her developing fetus. These substances can interfere with the body's ability to absorb nutrients from healthy foods and can cause deficiencies. There is also a concern that the substances consumed may contain toxic or parasitic ingredients. These substances can cause all type of problems, such as bowel obstruction, constipation, and intestinal pain.
Ice consumption in large amounts is not toxic to your system, but there is some evidence that women who eat ice daily in amounts of ½ cup to 2 cups have lower levels of iron in the blood in the second and third trimesters.
What to Do About Pica Cravings
If you experience these abnormal cravings, the first thing to do is inform your doctor immediately. Gather as much information as possible about the specific risks associated with your specific craving. Do not be embarrassed to speak to your doctor about your unusual cravings! If you have been consuming any of these substances, you may need to be tested and/or monitored for toxic substances you have ingested.
Your doctor may monitor you for nutritional deficiencies. She also may assess your iron intake along with your intake of other vitamin and minerals through both supplements and healthy foods. Try to find substitutes for your cravings. Chew sugarless gum or suck on sugarless candy. Inform your spouse or a friend who can help act as support and keep you accountable.