Understanding the unusual cravings of pica syndrome

It's normal for pregnant women to have strong and unusual food cravings, and many pregnant women report experiencing cravings for unusual flavor combinations and the strong urge to eat unusual foods or foods they don't usually eat or even like. These pregnancy cravings are thought to stem from normal hormonal changes which occur in pregnant women, but in some cases, an eating disorder known as pica syndrome can develop.

Pica is marked by a strong, uncontrollable and compulsive urge to eat non-food materials, which may be organic or inorganic in nature. Someone with pica may crave and consume substances such as clay, sand, chalk, ice, ashes, soap, mothballs or baking soda, among other things.


Pica in pregnancy is rare, but it has the potential to be very harmful. The pica eating disorder can lead to gastrointestinal injuries, parasitic infections or poisoning, all while depleting the developing fetus of vital nutrients. Many women who develop pica in pregnancy don't say anything because they're embarrassed about their unusual cravings, but help is available and should be sought to prevent the possibility of harm to the unborn child.

Causes of Pica Syndrome

The exact causes of pica syndrome remain the subject of debate within the medical community, though it is theorized that specific nutritional deficiencies which can result from pregnancy trigger an overwhelming urge to replace deficient nutrients by unusual means. Hormonal changes and imbalances are also thought to play a role, though this has yet to be quantified or even proven in controlled studies.

Treating Pica in Pregnancy

In most cases, treating pica in pregnancy is accomplished through a combination of cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) and intensive counseling. Your obstetrician may refer you to a psychotherapist who specialized in treating pica during pregnancy so that you can learn proven techniques for controlling your cravings and resisting the urge to act on them. You may also be given nutritional supplements which supply your body with minerals which may be deficient as a means of controlling your body's cravings for them.

Outside of pregnancy, certain psychiatric medications may be used to treat pica; however, your doctor may be reluctant to use these therapies during your pregnancy because of the possibility that chemical byproducts may harm the fetus. However, in cases where the pica syndrome continues after the pregnancy is over, medications may be used to bring the condition under control.