The People's Perspective on Medicine

Why Ice Craving Is a Serious Danger Signal

An out-of-control ice craving may be due to iron deficiency anemia caused by celiac disease, the inability to tolerate gluten.

Ice cravings can, like the tip of an iceberg, signal a bigger problem. It may take some sleuthing, though. Many people with uncontrollable ice craving may have no idea that they need to be tested for nutritional deficiencies. One reader’s story shows why:

Ice Craving and Celiac Disease:

Q. My wife developed an intense ice craving. She crunched ice relentlessly at home and even when we ate out.

As it turned out, she was seriously anemic and osteoporotic as well. After almost four years of iron pills and blood infusions, a biopsy of her small intestines revealed celiac disease.

This was in the days before diagnostic blood tests and general awareness of gluten intolerance. Any strong change in food or drink preferences or eating behavior should be carefully checked out. You have written about ice cravings quite a lot but why haven’t you mentioned celiac disease as a potential causative factor?

Celiac Disease Can Cause Nutritional Deficiencies:

A. Thank you so much for sharing your wife’s story. A craving for non-food substances such as ice, cornstarch or clay is called pica.

Anemia brought on by iron deficiency can trigger this condition. As you correctly point out, anemia can be caused by celiac disease. This autoimmune disorder can damage the lining of the small intestine when susceptible people consume gluten from wheat, barley or rye.

The resulting inflammation and damage keeps the lining of the intestine from doing its job properly. It can’t absorb nutrients like iron or other minerals such as calcium, magnesium or zinc. Vitamin absorption may also be impaired.

People with unexplained anemia and ice cravings should be tested for celiac disease. (There is a case report about a 5-year-old child eating rocks in Gastroenterology and Hepatology from Bed to Bench, Winter 2017. Another case report involved a youngster eating sponges, published in Acta Paediatrica, Dec. 2007. Both of these children turned out to have celiac disease.)

We suspect that ice craving is far more common, especially in adults. People with this problem should also be checked for other nutritional deficiencies beyond iron deficiency and anemia.

Learn More:

You can listen to our interviews with experts on celiac disease: Dr. Peter H. R. Green, Director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University; and Dr. Alessio Fasano, Director of the Center for Celiac Research and Division Chief of the Department of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Too little information

I had strange cravings for spent ‘match’ heads as a child. Why I ate such gross, black crunchy things I never knew but I also was diagnosed with Celiac in later life.

I don’t know if you have mentioned this in your column but I also have had ice cravings and been diagnosed with Hereditary Hemochromatosis, an iron overload condition, quite the opposite of anemia. It’s funny that a lot of my symptoms before I was diagnosed resembled anemia too.

Thank you for your wonderful column and all you do to help us all.

Do things like ice, corn starch and clay have something in them that relieves the anemia, as little relief as it may provide, to explain the craving?

Is pica different in animals? I recently saw a TV show about cats where it was stated that there is no cure for pica.

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