Pagophagia. Funny word, isn’t it? Probably not one you’ve heard very often, but you may well have experienced it. It’s thought that as many as 1 in 5 pregnant women experience Pagophagia at some point during their pregnancy. I was definitely one of them. What is Pagophagia? Is it something to be concerned about?
What Is Pagophagia?
The word Pagophagia comes from the Greek words: pagos – meaning “ice”, and phagō – meaning “to eat”, and we use it to describe a “craving for ice”. The compulsion isn’t exclusively related to pregnancy, anyone can experience it. But the desire to chomp your way through the ice tray is quite a common pregnancy craving.
Pagophagia is a form of Pica – more on that later – but no one knows for sure what causes it. However, there is a link between Pagophagia and iron deficiency. Rates of Pagophagia are higher in women that also tested positive for anemia.
One study reports that chewing on a piece of ice gives a mental boost to people that suffer from anemia. It seems to cause vascular changes that direct more blood flow to the brain. Strangely, this only happened with the people that had anemia, not the healthy subjects, which could be one reason why anemic people crave ice.
Anemia is very common in women, especially pregnant women. If you find yourself craving ice then it’s worth mentioning it to your doctor and getting tested for anemia. They may suggest you start taking an iron supplement.
If you think you might be anemic you may well be experiencing some other symptoms of iron deficiency, these include:
- pale skin
- feeling cold
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath
- feeling lightheaded
- sore or swollen tongue
- lack of appetite
- restless leg syndrome
Pagophagia & Me
I suffered from Pagophagia when I was pregnant. No – suffered is the wrong word, I actually quite enjoyed it. For me, it wasn’t just ice I wanted. I craved anything freezing cold. I could only drink iced water, and I was eating about six ice lollies a day.
Luckily I discovered Del Monte’s Just Juice ice lollies, or popsicles as the American’s call them. They are pretty much as the name suggests – just juice – without added sugar or any other nasties. They actually count as one of your five-a-day so I wasn’t too worried about how many I was eating. Fresh watermelon straight from the fridge seemed to really hit the spot as well. Delicious.
Turns out I was anemic. The doctor gave me iron supplements to take but the cravings didn’t go away. But my son was born in the middle of July, in the Algarve, so maybe the heat had something to do with it too.
Although ice isn’t bad for your health chomping down on hard ice cubes could damage your teeth. Try bashing the ice up a bit, into smaller chips that you can just suck on instead. Having said that, I know that the actual crunching is part of the satisfaction. At least crunch down on smaller pieces, rather than solid blocks of ice.
Pagophagia is one of the least concerning forms of Pica, but you should still get it checked out with your doctor.
What Is Pica About?
Pica is a disorder characterized by cravings for things that offer no nutritional value. Things we wouldn’t consider food such as chalk, clay or coal. The word Pica comes from “Pica”, the Latin word for Magpie – a bird known for eating almost anything.
Although not exclusive to pregnancy, Pica is most commonly seen in pregnant women and young children. It’s a really strange disorder and the compulsion to eat these non-food objects can be really compelling. It can also be really dangerous.
I remember seeing a woman on the news years ago who had a craving for soil. And not just any soil, but the soil that was stuck to the surface of fresh potatoes. A craving for soil doesn’t sound too dangerous but that really depends on where the soil comes from. It could be full of pesticides, or possibly have animal faeces and parasites in it. Yuck!
Another lady on the same show had to be physically stopped by her husband from eating firelighters, those toxic white cubes you use to get the barbecue going. Pica can be highly dangerous for both mother and baby if the urge is that strong.
It’s not only the risk of poison but also the risk of ingesting things that cannot be digested, causing gastrointestinal obstruction or tearing in the stomach.
Although no one is really sure what causes Pica, it’s possible that it’s some sort of nutritional deficiency such as iron, zinc or iodine. Recently there has been suggestion that pica could be linked to mental health, possibly falling somewhere in the OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) spectrum.
Many women tend to lack vital nutrients during pregnancy, especially if they’ve experienced morning sickness, so that tends to be the main cause of all types of pregnancy cravings. Thankfully more dangerous forms of Pica are quite rare
What Causes Pregnancy Cravings?
Most women will experience some sort of food craving during pregnancy, although the timing, duration and intensity of these cravings will differ from person to person. The body usually craves what it needs, on both a physical and an emotional level.
Salt cravings can indicate a magnesium deficiency, dairy cravings a calcium deficiency, sweet cravings a carbohydrate and calorie deficiency, fat cravings an essential fatty acid deficiency.
– ALISA VITTI, FUNCTIONAL NUTRITIONIST
During pregnancy your body goes through so many dramatic changes, in a relatively short space of time. Apart from the obvious physical ones like the massive bump, putting on weight, the big old clown feet etc, you’re also on a roller coaster of hormonal changes whilst dealing with the fact that very soon your life will be forever changed.
It’s an intense time. Occasionally it can feel scary and overwhelming, so it’s no wonder that you feel like munching through a family-sized bar of Dairy Milk. It’s okay, you’re pretty much a family already, right?
There is actually some science behind this type of emotional craving. During pregnancy your levels of Dopamine, the feel good hormone, drop. This makes you to feel a bit down in the dumps and what better way to put a smile back on your face than to indulge in a little bit of what you fancy. Just thinking about eating the things that you love but try to resist most of the time can raise your dopamine levels and have you putting on a happy face again.
Usually there’s no harm in indulging yourself during pregnancy. As long as your still eating a balance diet and getting all the essential nutrients you and your baby need then a few extra treats won’t hurt anyone.
Having cravings is normal, and usually fine. Problems only arise if you start to experience certain types of Pica. If you experience any cravings for things other than food, things that have no nutritional value or things that could be harmful to yourself or your baby, then you need to talk to your doctor straight away to get some tests done.
Obviously, do your best to avoid consuming these things.
What To Do About Pagophagia
If you’ve had some tests and it’s clear that you have an iron deficiency your doctor will probably prescribe a supplement for you to take. Getting your iron levels up may be all it takes to stop your ice cravings.
You can also help raise your iron levels yourself by making sure you include plenty of iron rich foods in your diet. Foods that have plenty of iron include:
- legumes (such as lentils, beans and chickpeas)
- beef & lamb
- firm tofu
- vegetables such as kale, broccoli, spinach and green peas
- pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds
- canned salmon
- nuts, especially cashews and almonds
- dried fruit
- wholegrain cereals such as oats or muesli that are fortified with iron
Liver and shellfish are also good sources of iron but they are on the list of foods that pregnant women should avoid so be aware of that and talk to your doctor before including them in your diet.
If you can, it’s best to try to up your iron levels through your diet rather than taking a supplement. And only ever supplement iron if your doctor prescribes it. Our bodies can’t get rid of excess iron and a build-up can lead to all sorts of other health problems, from constipation to cancer. So don’t self prescribe, okay.
If it turns out you’re not anemic, you’re eating plenty of iron rich food, and you’re still desperate for your ice fix then you need to consider that the cause may be psychological. If you’re stressed or experiencing negative feelings about yourself, your life, your pregnancy, these feelings could trigger compulsive behaviour.
Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy is often used to treat eating disorders and OCD, so may be helpful in the treatment of Pagophagia. If you’ve only been experiencing this during your pregnancy though, chances are that your symptoms will go away as soon as you give birth.
A Final Thought
As long as you’re still eating a proper diet, along with your ice, then it’s not going to cause you any problems and hopefully your cravings will just go away on their own.
If you are worried about your cravings and would like to talk to someone then you can always contact Think CBT. They have counselors that can offer therapy online, by Skype or over the phone.
Contact Think CBT by phone on – 0044 1732 808 626, or by email – firstname.lastname@example.org
The most important thing is that you are looking after yourself, especially during pregnancy. Growing a baby takes a lot out of you so you need to be putting extra back in.
Eat well, rest a lot, don’t be too hard on yourself for eating the whole tub of ice cream. And if you do experience any form of pica, get yourself to the doctors and have them do some tests. Don’t ever worry about sounding like a weirdo. They’ve heard it all before.
If you have any questions about pica or pagophagia, or would like to share your experiences I’d love to hear them. Just contact me in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,