Have you ever seen someone eat strange things like dirt, coffee grounds, chalk, hair, or even paper? These cravings are certainly bizarre, but they stem from a mental health disorder called pica. When a person craves substances with little to no nutritional value, this ailment might be the cause.
Do you remember a few years ago when The Learning Channel did a reality show called My Strange Addiction? While it seemed a little outlandish to see people eating hair and baby powder, the show was based on an actual medical condition. Viewers squirmed and felt like purging as they watched these people eat substances not fit for human consumption.
What compels people with this strange eating disorder, and is it dangerous to eat things like paper and deodorant? This fascinating but unusual mental health problem is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is anxiety-based. National Geographic did a study in Madagascar to see how prevalent this condition was among genders.
Shockingly, over 63 percent of male participants admitted to engaging in eating things with no nutritional value. A condition that is thought to plague children and women now shows an incredible presence in the male community. The 760 men that participated claimed they had eaten charcoal, sand, and even chicken feces.
What Is Pica?
Pica is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a psychological disturbance. Individuals with this condition will consume things like:
These are just a few of the things that people consume, but they can become stranger and more bizarre with each addiction. So, this list is not by any means complete. This condition is as unique as the person who has it, and every case is diverse.
Making A Diagnosis
Before a mental health provider can diagnose this condition, the individual must be consuming the non-edible substances for at least 30 days prior. Additionally, the materials should be considered inappropriate for consumption, and they must not be a part of any religious or cultural practice. Another critical factor in diagnosing this disorder is severity.
An individual must have such a desire to consume these things that it warrants medical attention from a physical or psychological standpoint. A child that nibbles on a bar of soap in the bathtub on occasion will not warrant such a diagnosis. It’s normal for smaller children to experiment with various tastes, especially when playing outside, according to Kids Health.
Do you remember tasting dirt or grass when you were outside playing as a child? The difference between these instances and an actual mental health disorder is that the child is curious but usually doesn’t continue eating the substance for 30 days. While anxiety seems to be a big part of this ailment, other issues are linked to it.
Mental and emotional health disorders are almost always at the crux. One of the main reasons this condition gets a diagnosis is that the person ends up in the hospital or doctor’s office because they’ve ingested something requiring emergency intervention.
Signs & Symptoms of Pica
One of the reasons it’s so hard to diagnose this disorder is that there are no specific symptoms outside of the consumption. Additionally, each person has different taste preferences, so there are few hallmarks. The only identifying characteristic is that a person consumes foods with little to no nutritional value.
Since there are no symptoms of this condition, the mental health community broke the disorder down into subcategories. They are as follows:
•Acuphagia – Consuming sharp objects
•Amylophagia – Eating starches
•Cautopyreiogphagia – Digesting burnt matches
•Coniophagia – Cravings for dust
•Coprophagia – Eating feces
•Emetophagia – Consuming vomit
•Geomelophagia – Eating raw potatoes
•Geophagia – The craving and consumption of dirt, clay, and soils
•Hyalophagia – Eating glass
•Lithophagia – Consuming stones or rocks
•Mucophagia – Craving mucus
•Pagophagia – Compulsion to eat ice
•Trichophagia – Eating hair, wool, or other fibrous items
•Urophagia – The compulsion to drink urine
•Hematophagia – The craving for blood (also called vampirism)
•Xylophagia – Eating wood or paper products
The medical community has been unable to find any direct cause of pica, though there are many speculations. Each case is as unique as the person, so it makes a diagnosis even more difficult. According to Health Guide Info, most individuals have emotional trauma or family issues stemming from abuse or neglect that fuel their consumption issues.
It’s commonplace for a pregnant person to consume things she wouldn’t usually any other time. But she loses the cravings upon delivery. Some believe there is a vital link in vitamin and mineral deficiencies that may fuel this eating disorder. Being malnourished or deficient in something that the body needs to function can cause intense cravings to fill the void.
People who crave dirt, dust, rocks, and soil are typically anemic or have low red blood cells. Pregnancy can cause anemia and insufficient hemoglobin, so this might explain why these strange cravings happen to expectant mothers.
In recent times, pica has been linked to the anxiety-based obsessive-compulsive spectrum. Nevertheless, this is a distinct mental disorder that overlaps in symptoms. An interesting study found a marked connection between OCD and schizophrenia, though more studies will need to be conducted.
This eating disorder doesn’t have to be a mental disorder, as some folks consume things as a part of their cultural or ritual based practice. Regardless of the reasoning, it’s not safe to eat something that the body cannot properly digest.
Treatment Options and When to Seek Help
Most folks don’t think they have a problem until they have a medical crisis because of their eating disorder. Due to the wide variety of things consumed, it’s easy to see why some people land in the emergency room. Anyone with this disorder needs to be closely supervised as their compulsions take over their rationale, and it seems completely normal.
Like any eating disorder, it can be complicated to treat, but help is available. The doctor will evaluate many things before deciding the best course of treatment. The first concern is the severity of this issue and if any environmental factors come into play. The second concern is underlying vitamin and mineral deficiencies, so doctors order blood tests to confirm or deny an issue.
Lastly, mentally ill or developmentally disabled people will need a different treatment course than someone with a mineral deficiency. So, the underlying factors need to be identified to commence the proper treatment. The most common method would be counseling that includes behavioral therapies to reduce the severity of the symptoms.
Positive reinforcement is a good choice, and aversion therapy will help those that suffer from intellectual disabilities. The treatment plans for a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, like exposure therapy, are commonly used to help a person with this ailment, specifically if deemed anxiety-based.
Difficulties Associated with Bizarre Consumptions
It’s easy to see how complications can arise when someone is eating something the body cannot digest. A story found in the Independent newspaper reports a 38-year-old woman who had a problem with eating her hair. After being rushed to the emergency room, the doctors recovered a nearly six-inch hairball from her stomach.
The hair lodged deeply into her digestive tract. Upon further examination, they also found another nearly two-inch ball in her small intestines. The article stated that this condition had been documented a mere 88 times in medical history, and it’s often dubbed Rapunzel Syndrome.
If a person has a compulsion of ingesting toxic things such as paint chips, it can be deadly. Before much was known about this condition in the 1950s, Clare Boothe Luce became poisoned with paint chips that fell from her home’s ceiling. The chips got into her food and made their way into her body. She accidentally ingested this paint. But the aftermath was disastrous.
According to The Robinson Library, she quit her job because she had arsenic poisonings from ingesting the paint. She later died of a brain tumor, which many theorize stemmed from her poisoning years prior. Humans should not consume anything but food. Thus, when any foreign substances get into the digestive tract, it can wreak havoc on the entire system.
Whether caused by mental illness, an anxiety disorder, or a vitamin deficiency, society does not discuss pica. It’s commonplace for children to experiment with textures and tastes as they grow, and they may enjoy doing a dare to eat grass or dirt.
However, one must have a compulsion to eat un-nutritional items for one month or longer to get this diagnosis. Why the body craves things like hair or metal is still a medical anomaly. The important thing is to recognize the signs of this eating disorder before things get out of hand.
According to an article posted on the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about one-third of children up to six have this condition. Many say it’s difficult to estimate as far as adults, as most people engage in secret. Indeed, most only seek help for pica once they face severe health complications.