Dishing Dirt

Clay from Mother Earth has healing properties

by Michael Braunstein

The story is told of a convicted prisoner in the 16th Century who was condemned to be hanged. In a burst of inspired self-preservation, he struck a deal with the court: “Kill me if you must,” he implored, “But let me drink poison instead of hanging; as long as you allow me a dram of terra sigillata with it.”

Terra sigillata is the legendary medicinal earth taken from a clay bank on the Mediterranean island of Lemnos. History has described its ability to neutralize poisons and toxins in the body.

In the interest of science, the court agreed and executed the sentence. The executioner fed the prisoner six times the needed dose of mercuric chloride necessary to kill a man. They also allowed him his terra sigillata. The prisoner did not go unscathed, cramping painfully as the poison and the antidote battled in his belly. But he did survive and lived out his days a free man.

Can you dig it? Indigenous peoples around the world have applied the medicinal and therapeutic powers of dirt for thousands of years. At first, it may sound counterintuitive or even disgusting to present day Americans but eating dirt or derivatives thereof is not as uncommon as one may think. And there is proven therapeutic benefit in the proper circumstances. According to authors Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein in Honey, Mud, Maggots, and Other Medical Marvels, modern experts have analyzed the clay from near where ancient terra sigillata was produced and found that it does indeed have the ability to neutralize poisons. Though plain dirt may sometimes have beneficial qualities, the kind of dirt comprised of fine particles of mineral sediment and called clay is the most frequently used.

Different clays from different sources have disparate qualities and not all are beneficial. The very characteristics that can make one type of clay healthful to us may make another type unhealthful. Primitive cultures had the advantage of time-tested use. The American Indians of the southwest knew which clays to mix with acorns (inedible by humans unless treated) to remove naturally toxic tannins. They used it to treat stomachache. The clay from Lemnos had been written about for centuries as beneficial. Ancient Chinese, Indian and Micronesian cultures all knew where to get the good clay. Remember that before you dig up your back yard.

Dirt filters. The therapeutic use of clay comes from various characteristics. If we think of clay as very fine particles, we can realize that on a microscopic level, clay exposes amazing surface area. This is the same principle that makes charcoal filters efficient. Yerba Prima, a company selling a food grade bentonite clay notes that one tablespoon of their product microscopically exposes 960 square yards of surface area. When that surface area encounters toxins in the intestine, the mechanical process of adsorption collects toxins and heavy metals to that surface. Other offending toxins, even neurotoxins, biotoxins from bacteria and distillates like pesticides, are further absorbed on a molecular basis.

With many mineral clays, there is also an electric component to the detoxification process. Clays demonstrate a cationic effect that binds ionized materials such as many poisons, especially if the poison contains a heavy metal such as mercury or lead.

Some clays and dirts can also be considered nutritional supplements if they contain sufficiently accessible minerals or nutrients. In one experiment in the 1960s, astronauts were able to curtail the typical bone loss of space travel by ingesting calcium-rich clay.

Finally, the mechanical action of the clay cleansing and gently scraping the gut allows the lining of the intestine to function more efficiently.

The most common form of clay used therapeutically in the United States is a form of sodium montmorillonite called bentonite. It was named such because of its discovery near Fort Benton, Wyo.

Rather than dig up some clay in the yard, most Americans head online for the dirty answer. Mud and dirt sources around the world now make mud and dirt available with a click and a credit card. By all means, do research first and I would consult with my health care professional (like a licensed herbalist or licensed acupuncturist) before digging yourself in a hole.

Skinny dip in it. Ingesting clay or other dirt, otherwise known as geophagy, is only one way to benefit from earthy healing. Topical application of clay can also detoxify on another level. In fact some clays should only be used topically if at all. After all, clay is absorbent and eating the wrong kind could absorb things best left in the body, like essential nutrients.

Processed feldspar clay is believed to draw toxins from the skin for a general overall toner. Other external applications vary. And those images of people in spas taking mud baths? Seems there is some sense to it.

Bentonite poultice has even been used as a remedy for the highly toxic and necrotic brown recluse spider bite.

Even though your mama stopped you from eating dirt when you were a kid, you still did it, didn’t you? Now you might have an excuse.

Be well.

Heartland Healing is a metaphysically based polemic describing alternatives to conventional methods of healing the body, mind and planet. It is provided as information and entertainment, certainly not medical advice. Important to remember and pass on to others: for a weekly dose of Heartland Healing, visit


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