Pica is a rare eating disorder that affects mostly children. However it can also affect pregnant women and this is risky not only to the mother but to her unborn child as well. One study found that up to 38 percent of women had pica although determining an exact number is difficult because it often goes unreported. Here we'll discuss pica during pregnancy and give expectant mothers all the information they need to understand and seek help for the condition.
What Is It?
Pica is a serious eating disorder that causes pregnant women and children to eat non-food items. Latin for magpie, a bird that is notorious for eating peculiar items, pica can be deadly as it can cause dangerous blockages and ruptured digestive organs.
Like other eating disorders, pica is a mental health condition that is thought to be exacerbated by the hormones associated with pregnancy. One single exact cause is not known.
Pica affects approximately 10 to 32 percent of children and about 10 percent of women, though this number is thought to be inaccurate because many women don't report their pica cravings out of embarrassment. The number of pregnant women with pica is significantly higher in developing countries where religious or cultural practices encourage the eating of non-food items.
Women with pica can crave any number of things that have little or no nutritional value including;
- Ice or freezer frost
- Dirt or clay
- Burnt matches
- Coffee grounds
- Baking soda
- Metal pieces or nails
There is currently no single identified cause. Instead it is thought that a number of factors play a role in a pregnant woman developing pica, including;
- Mineral deficiencies such as iron or zinc
- Mental health problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder or other conditions that cause compulsory behavior
- Developmentally problems such as autism
- A past history of pica as a child
- Abuse or neglect
- Extreme poverty
- Religious or cultural practices that cause a person to eat non-food items
Who Is Affected?
Anyone can develop pica at any time, however the vast majority of people with this condition are children under the age of 6 and pregnant women. There are some people who have pica that continues into adulthood, but these people usually have some time of mental or developmental disorder.
Women in developing countries are more often affected than women in places like the United States or Europe. The reasons are largely cultural and economic, due to poor medical care and poverty when it comes to monitoring the levels of certain nutrients in the mother's blood that are known to contribute to the development of pica.
Many women who are affected by pica have deficiencies in heavy metal minerals such as iron or zinc. Because of this these women often report that their pica cravings disappear or decrease significantly after mineral supplementation.
In short, yes, pica can be very harmful to an unborn baby if it is left untreated. Pica can lead to further nutritional deficiencies, lead or other heavy metal poisoning, or blockages in the digestive tract from indigestible material building up. Pica can also cause a woman to ingest items that are toxic or parasitic.
Complications and Treatment
There are a number of complications associated with pica. Depending upon what a person has consumed surgery may be required to remove the items, opening a person up to all the risks associated with a surgical procedure. The risk dramatically increases when the woman is pregnant, and often surgery isn't an option if a woman is pregnant. Sadly some even die due to the damage caused to the body from ingesting non-food items such as nails or metal pieces.
Research has found that women who engage in pica practices during their pregnancies have lower hemoglobin levels at the time of birth. Since hemoglobin is responsible for carrying oxygen to cells in the red blood cells (hemoglobin is what makes them red) this is significant. It could affect how fast a woman recovers or facilitate the need for transfusions of red blood cells if the deficiency is serious enough.
The number of hospitalization associated with pica has increased 93 percent in the last decade. This is both good and bad news; good news because it means that women and children who are affected are getting treatment, but bad news because it may mean that there are far more women and children are developing pica than originally thought.
Treatment for pica is possible, though it isn't always easy. Sometimes treating pica is as simple as treating any underlying nutritional deficiencies. If this is the cause, then simply supplementing those nutrients should dramatically reduce or eliminate the cravings altogether, but this is seldom the only cause of pica.
Because pica is a mental health disorder that has physical implications, like other eating disorders, both a physician that understands pica and a mental health professional who specializes in eating disorders may be required to treat the problem.
Pica is a serious condition which can be life threatening. If a woman has cravings for non-food items or is eating non-food items she needs to inform her doctor immediately to avoid any long term health problems for her or her baby.