Eating dirt can be good for the gut

June 3rd, 2011 - 2:58 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, June 3 (IANS) For many people all over the world, dining on dirt is nothing out of the ordinary. Now an extensive analysis helps explain why.

The most probable explanation for human geophagy, the eating of earth, is that it protects the stomach against toxins, parasites, and pathogens, the study suggests.

The first written account of human geophagy came from Hippocrates more than 2,000 years ago, says Cornell University researcher Sera Young, who led the study, reports the journal The Quarterly Review of Biology.

Since then, the eating of earth has been reported on every inhabited continent and in almost every country. Several hypotheses had been considered plausible. Some researchers think geophagy is simply a consequence of food shortage, according to a Cornell statement.

Accordingly, Young and her colleagues analysed reports from missionaries, plantation doctors, explorers, and anthropologists to put together a database of more than 480 cultural accounts of geophagy.

Overall, the protection hypothesis fits the data best, Cornell researchers found.

The database shows that geophagy is documented most commonly in women in the early stages of pregnancy and in pre-adolescent children.

Both categories of people are especially sensitive to parasites and pathogens, according to Young and her colleagues.

In addition, geophagy is most common in tropical climates where foodborne microbes are abundant. Finally, the database shows that people often eat earth during episodes of gastrointestinal stress.

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