Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pica cravings - borderline addiction process?

Have you heard of pica? Many would say it refers to a measurement of printer type, which is correct, but we’re discussing a health issue here today. Pica is a condition defined as craving an item that is not nutritive, or of no nutritional value. You may have heard old wives tales of women craving dirt, chalk or starch when pregnant. This is actually not myth-based. In fact, pica symptoms afflict a good 80% of the population of the United States, according to some studies. The cravings for these non-food items can range from dirt, chalk, clay, cornstarch, to downright dangerous items such as drywall, which can contain microfibers of asbestos, glass fragments and metal shavings.

After doing extensive research, I have found that most people afflicted with pica have one thing in common. They are iron deficient. Anemia seems to be the most often discussed health issue in chat rooms devoted to pica conditions. Doctors do blood work and then prescribe iron supplements. People suffering from pica then end up suffering from stomach pain, headaches and constipation from iron supplements. So, what is the remedy? It appears there isn’t a “magic bullet” for those suffering from pica. Each individual has to go on an odyssey of trial and error research to find what works for their specific symptoms and responses.

An interesting fact is that the most frequently consumed pica items that are discussed in chat rooms are cornstarch and chalk. There is also frequent discussion of the jittery, borderline feelings of panic when a pican doesn’t have their item of craving on hand to consume. I gave this one some thought and did some more digging. It appears, folks, that those out there suffering from pica aren’t too far separated from those suffering from other chemical addictions such as drugs and alcohol. Somewhere along the line, the anemia issue seems to trigger those cravings. People start consuming the non-food items such as cornstarch and chalk and note that they immediately experience a euphoric feeling that is chased by a feeling of calm. Ponder this with me – anemia prompts cravings, cravings become unbearable, person with cravings consumes a non-food item and feels euphoria. Something in this whole process is triggering what sounds like a serotonin dump in that person’s brain. I am not a doctor and don’t play one on television, but the logic here indicates that serotonin is key.

People who have addictions, from what I have read, have lower levels of serotonin production in their brains. Serotonin is the chemical our brain releases to regulate sleep patterns, produce a sense of calmness and peace, and is also responsible for that euphoria we feel when we first fall in love, or see a loved one after a long absence. I posit to you, then, that those who suffer from pica are also deficient in serotonin production. Is there a link between anemia and lower levels of serotonin production? I haven't run across it yet, but again, it stands to reason there must be. Think with me on this next point – starch and chalks are both carbohydrate based products. Serotonin can be triggered to release if we eat carbohydrate based foods like cookies, pasta, potatoes, etc. The result is a feeling of calm, and in some cases, euphoria. Pica cravings seem to follow this exact same cycle blueprint that people with chemical addictions go through. It would be interesting to get a group of scientists to study this concept and see where the research might lead.

For now, I leave those dealing with pica with this suggestion. Rather than immediately embracing your non-food pica item of choice when the cravings hit, why not try a carb based food first and see if that knocks the pica craving down a bit? Studies haven’t been done to show what negative long-term effects consuming pica items can have, but again, common sense prevails and indicates that it can’t be a healthy lifestyle to continue to lead. I say embrace those carbs and see if you have some success in “re-training” your trigger reactions. Can’t hurt to try!


  1. Dopamine and serotonin both play a role in craving. Dopamine reinforces novel and rewarding experiences and has a big part in drug addiction. Food cravings are more linked to serotonin, as many foods contain tryptophan-which metabolizes into serotonin among other molecules.

  2. Hi Ryan, and thank you for your comment! This article was one of my very early posts here at Healing Morning and I hadn't read through it in a while. I appreciate your comments about dopamine. The more I learn about addiction and pica cravings, the more similar they start to sound. I didn't know the info you shared about tryptophan metabolizing into serotonin, but it's another puzzle piece to click into place.

    Thank you for visiting, going all the way back to my earliest postings, reading & leaving such an interesting comment. :)

    ~ Dawn