Believe it or not, people have been eating dirt and clay for thousands of years. Over 200 cultures eat clay or dirt on a regular basis and in Europe it was commonly used as a digestive aid, as well as to combat ageing.
And as it happens, some people still are eating clay – bentonite clay being one of the most popular choices. It’s not exactly a delicacy you’d order at a fancy restaurant but apparently it has a number of advantages…
Bentonite is an absorbent aluminum phyllosilicate. In English, that means it’s an impure clay that is made largely of montmorillonite and that has absorbent properties. It is that absorbent nature, along with its alkaline pH and negative ionic charge that make it so popular for a number of remedies and treatments.
But what can it be used for specifically? And does it really work as advertised?
Benefits and Uses
The main reason many people use bentonite clay is because they believe it can be useful for detoxing. The hope is that it will magnetically ‘attract’ heavy metals thanks to the missing ion while at the same time absorbing other toxins like a sponge (similarly to activated charcoal). To use it, most people add the clay to a little water and then drink it down after dinner.
One important piece of advice though, is to avoid using too much clay in one go. The clay can swell to many times its original size by absorbing water alone so if you use too much it can be dehydrating and uncomfortable. Start with just a small teaspoon to begin with.
Applied topically, it is also thought that bentonite clay might be useful in removing bacteria and soothing some painful conditions such as eczema.
As an added bonus, bentonite clay is also rich in a number of minerals. Specifically, it’s rich in calcium, magnesium, silica, sodium (salt), iron, potassium and copper.
Does it Actually Work?
Be careful when reading about the virtues of bentonite clay and other natural remedies. Often the websites publishing these stories have an agenda and you’ll commonly find that the evidence being presented is taken out of context.
There is no evidence supporting bentonite clay as a topical treatment for eczema and dermatitis for instance. Studies such as this one show that clays can be used in vitro to combat some types of bacteria but this is a far cry from showing any benefit of direct application to eczema (which is an entirely unrelated condition).
Bentonite clay can be made into a smooth gel that may feel pleasant when applied to the skin. And it may have additional benefit for killing germs. For now though, that’s all we can really say.
Unfortunately, it’s the same story for many of the other alleged benefits of bentonite clay. Some people say that adding the clay to a bath can be a great way to detox the skin. This is completely unfounded – soap kills bacteria and that’s the only form of ‘detox’ your body really needs.
And this is the big issue with detoxing in general. ‘Detox’ is a word regularly thrown around online but it doesn’t actually mean anything. There’s no consensus on what detoxing actually means and especially when you consider that your body is highly efficient at removing bacteria and toxins on its own.
The claims that bentonite clay offers one of the ‘safest and most natural’ ways to detox are dubious to begin with. What’s even more dubious is whether there’s any need for you to detox in the first place!
There are also a number of reasons to be cautious when using bentonite clay. There is some concern for instance that certain clays and soil may contain unsafe levels of arsenic, lead and toxins (1) for pregnant women. It’s also possible that clay could actually remove some of the nutrients you want in your body. Dr. David L. Katz told the Huffington Post:
“Removing metal from the body is not necessarily good – iron, for example, is a metal and essential to health. So, there could conceivably be benefits, but there could certainly be harms – and a favorable benefit/harm ratio has not been established to justify recommending this.”
That said, bentonite clay may work for some people as a digestive aid or to settle the stomach. It certainly is a highly absorbent substance and it does appear to combat bacteria and viruses in a number of studies (2). It’s actually more likely to be useful when used as an ingredient in your cooking (3).
To conclude, bentonite clay is certainly not the miracle ‘cleanser’ that it is heralded as. It certainly does have some interesting properties that make it a curious combination of activated charcoal and chia seeds, but you should wait for more research to be conducted before you spend a lot of money on it or make it a part of your routine.
Oh and the reason that indigenous people ate clay and dirt? Generally it was because they lacked important nutrients in their diet. There are healthier ways to get the minerals you need!