The practice of consuming clay is prehistoric, with references to its medical use documented by Hippocrates.
Bentonite is the most common form of medicinal clay available and is used as a base for some prescription medicines. Although bentonite can be used externally as a poultice, it is most commonly recommended as a gentle therapy to cleanse the gastrointestinal tract.
Even when we do our best to avoid environmental toxicants in the air we breathe and water we drink, poor eating habits and processed foods can sabotage our health from the inside. Incomplete digestion allows partially digested food to act as an irritant along the digestive tract, and dysbiosis (a condition of imbalance in one’s native gut flora) of pathogenic strains of bacteria and/or yeast can produce endotoxins as metabolic byproducts.
Complicating the picture are naturally occurring compounds in food that impair digestion. This can occur broadly, with lectins contained in a number of nutritious foods that simply do not agree with our individual biochemistry. This is a particular concern for individuals sensitive to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and spelt.
Other compounds can inhibit the absorption of nutrients and are categorically referred to as anti-nutrients. For example, phytic acid found in grains can block the absorption of minerals. A surprising number of anti-nutrients come from plants, which manufacture numerous phytochemicals in order to deter herbivores and omnivores from eating them. Special care must be taken to properly prepare and cook these foods following traditional methods such as the soaking, sprouting, or fermenting of nuts, seeds, and grains.
“Food” coming out of a factory is often replete with artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners; MSG; preservatives; trace amounts of heavy metals; and plastic residue from the linings of cans and containers (BPA) or processing equipment (phthalates). A healthy microbiome provides the first line of defense as a barrier to entry against these toxicants. However, in the context of dysbiosis and a loss of gut integrity, toxicants may be absorbed into the bloodstream, where the liver must break them down or shunt the excess burden peripherally, such as into adipose tissue (body fat).
With so many insults to the digestive tract, how can we safeguard our health? To blunt the effect of toxicants passing through the gut, medicinal clay is well-suited as an adsorbent, drawing the harmful substances in and allowing them to harmlessly pass out of the body via the colon. In this way, the action of clay is purely mechanical (as opposed to chemical) and is very safe to use as a long-term detoxification method.
It is fascinating to note that clay is consumed extensively throughout the animal kingdom. In her book “Wild Health,” mammalian behavior endocrinologist Cindy Engel, PhD, shares fascinating research detailing how many animals, from birds to elephants, seek out and eat clay in a practice called geophagy. Although we can’t anthropomorphize these animals’ actions, it is clear that the intent of ingesting the clay is therapeutic.
Bentonite clay for human consumption is available in tablet or liquid form. It can be taken after a meal at the first sign of gastrointestinal upset or on an empty stomach as a general detoxifier. Bentonite is ideal for use during travel to prevent and treat foodborne illness and is similar to activated charcoal, another old remedy that also works to adsorb toxins from food and toxicants from the environment.
Sometimes the simplest remedies are the best. Consider adding a bentonite clay product to your home health care kit to be taken as needed, or regularly as part of a holistic detoxification program.
Author: Brandon LaGreca, LAc
Brandon is the founder and director of East Troy Acupuncture, an integrative medical clinic serving southeast Wisconsin, where he specializes in whole-food nutrition, ancestral health, and environmental medicine.