Pelotherapy is the therapeutic use of clay and has been practiced for centuries. Aside from general detoxification purposes, clay has been taken internally for the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders, intoxication and respiratory ailments. There are several types of clay used in detoxification that may cause undesirable side effects in certain individuals.
Types of Clay
Clays used internally for detoxification purposes include bentonite or montmorillonite, pyrophyllite and illite, also known as French green clay or sea clay. These clays are generally safe to use but may produce mild side effects in certain individuals. Modeling clay or pottery clay are not considered safe for ingestion. Cosmetic clays, such as kaolin clay and rhassoul clay, should only be used externally.
Bentonite is generally considered safe for internal use, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, although it may cause mild constipation as the body acclimates to the clay. Drinking plenty of water may help reduce this occurrence, but side effects vary from person to person. In contrast, pyrophyllite clay rarely causes constipation. Several clinical trials using bentonite clay have reported good tolerability and safety, with no significant side effects reported in the literature. Researchers investigating the safety of 1.5-3 grams of montmorillonite clay (NovaSil) per day as a protector against aflatoxin reported mild side effects of abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and flatulence, although none of these side effects differed significantly from the placebo group.
Precautions and Contraindications
Ingesting clay for detoxification purposes should generally be avoided in patients during pregnancy and lactation, as chronic exposure may lead to an increased chance of developing toxemia. Additionally, patients with Wilson's disease (excess copper abnormality) or renal insufficiency should avoid clay. As clay may alter the way the body processes minerals and nutrients, bentonite and other healing clays should not be taken internally concurrently with prescribed medications or herbal supplements without careful medical supervision. Additionally, healing clays should not be used internally in those who currently have high blood pressure, chronic constipation or iron intolerance without proper supervision and other supportive treatment. When ingesting clay for detoxification, it is important to drink plenty of water.
Habitual clay eating, called geophagia, is a disorder and differs from the therapeutic short-term use of clay for detoxification. However, it is worth discussing because chronic exposure to internal clay poses serious health risks, including electrolyte imbalances and possible toxicity. Swelling, heart abnormalities, dry and shiny skin progressing to skin ulcerations, frequent urination in large amounts and eventually death have been associated with chronic eating of dirt and clay. Additional health effects have included musculoskeletal disorders, low potassium levels, trace element deficiency and reduced secretion of hormones.