Pica Syndrome: When Humans Become True Omnivores

Pica syndrome is a compulsive eating disorder that can have serious health consequences. Why does it occur and how can it be treated?

Many eating disorders have trouble eating the right amount of food for the body. In the case of pica syndrome, on the other hand, things are consumed that are not usually part of the human diet or that can even be poisonous and dangerous.

How does pica syndrome become noticeable?

The name of the syndrome is derived from the Latin word “pica” for magpie. Similar to the bird, which uses various objects to build its nest and transports them in its beak, people affected by pica syndrome eat certain things that are usually not necessarily suitable for consumption.

These are often odd or even unappetizing. Objects, certain substances or even inedible waste are then swallowed compulsively. This phenomenon is also known as picacism and allotriophagy.

Cravings for pregnancy are also classified as a particularly mild form of pica syndrome. This includes, for example, cravings for particularly spicy foods or foods that you would otherwise not touch. However, this is not a disease.

What do sufferers eat?

Those suffering from pica syndrome eat unusual and sometimes even inedible foods. What exactly is eaten varies from case to case. Among other things, sufferers often ingest the following:

  • Earth
  • stones
  • grass
  • Hair
  • soap
  • paper
  • foam
  • flour
  • insects
  • feces
  • cement

While children are more likely to put inedible objects in their mouths or even swallow them, this is an alarm signal for adolescents and adults. If the problem persists for a longer period of time (at least a month), it is helpful to seek medical advice.

In his examination, the doctor includes what is primarily eaten and whether there are socio-cultural reasons for this – because some substances such as grass and certain types of soil, but also urine, for example, is used by some people for self-healing.

Possible causes: How does pica syndrome develop?

In principle, anyone can be affected by pica syndrome. Experts assume that biological as well as psychological processes play a role as causes. More often, the symptoms mentioned are found in people with schizophrenia or mental retardation.

Brain damage, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression can also trigger pica syndrome. The severity of the syndrome varies from person to person. The typical signs can also increase or decrease again.

In addition, nutritional factors can be decisive as a cause. Various studies have shown, for example, that the eating disorder occurs more frequently in regions where there is a lack of iron, calcium, or zinc. To compensate for the lack of nutrients, the body could instinctively look for edible alternatives.

Risks of Pica Syndrome

The consumption of non-toxic and easily digestible substances or objects is usually not associated with health risks, but should still be monitored with regard to an existing pica syndrome. Enamel problems and mouth ulcers can occur here depending on the item eaten (e.g. when eating wood or stones).

On the other hand, the consumption of dangerous non-food items is problematic. Sharp objects can severely damage digestive organs. Ingestion of feces or urine, as is the case with certain sexual practices, is dangerous. Because this allows germs to get into the body that is difficult to fight and puts a strain on the body.

Surgery may also be necessary if indigestible objects are swallowed. With larger and solid objects, the affected person may suffocate or suffer a so-called shock death. This leads to sudden cardiac arrest and circulatory failure.

Soil and plants can be contaminated with toxins, but also with parasites, and thus also lead to various non-specific complaints that a doctor cannot necessarily assign to pica syndrome at first. In the worst case, swallowing hair or other long-fibered objects can lead to a dangerous intestinal obstruction. In rare cases, the so-called “Rapunzel syndrome” can also occur, in which the peritoneum is inflamed by the hair in the stomach.

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Written by Kristen Cook

I am a recipe writer, developer and food stylist with almost over 5 years of experience after completing the three term diploma at Leiths School of Food and Wine in 2015.

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