Using Clay As Medicine
Written by Cathy Skipper
Clay may have contributed to the beginning of life on earth, recent scientific studies are suggesting. Several universities, including the Universities of Glasgow and Cornell, found that clay forms a hydrogel in simulated ancient sea water. This hydrogel contains a mass of microscopic spaces that can soak up liquids like a sponge. The sponge effect creates a confining space for organic molecules and biochemical reactions. What may have happened is that chemicals that were trapped in these spaces created by the clay could have, over billions of years, carried out complex reactions that formed proteins, DNA and eventually everything that is need for the creation of a living cell. In this space formed by clay these chemical processes could have been confined and the protected, until the cell membrane eventually evolved.
Many of the world’s ancient creation myths tell about the world and human beings being modeled out of clay. In Sumerian mythology, Enki, the Lord of the Earth, advises the gods to create a servant for themselves out of blood and clay. According to the Koran, god fashioned man out of clay. In Greek mythology, Prometheus made a man out of clay and Demeter breathed life into it. In Egypt, one of their oldest deities Khnum created children out of clay and then placed them in their mothers’ wombs.1 Native American creation myths often had clay as a central theme, too. The Creek peoples believed that the world was covered in water except for a hill of clay, where the Master of Breath lived. The Master created humanity from this clay. The Apache also believed that the first humans were formed from clay. In fact, if you delve a little more deeply, there are many myths from all over the world in which clay is seen as the ‘matter’ from which we arise.
In the work I have been doing with my husband Florian about the stages of alchemy and how they act as a framework for healing the soul, the fourth stage is known as ‘Coagulatio’, which in Latin means coagulation or solidifying. One of the core teachings of the ‘Coagulatio’ stage has to do with the need to inevitably come back to the body, matter and its limitations. Alchemists saw this stage as the process that turns something into earth. Psychologically it is the phase of grounding and embodiment. It feels heavy and permanent. Clay is a perfect symbol and material to help us feel this earthiness and commitment to being incarnated in our physical bodies.
This gets me to the central theme of this article. Clay has been used throughout the world and since prehistoric times as a healing modality. It was one of the first remedies to be used by humans and is still used commonly today in many countries. More and more studies, all over the world including in Japan, Norway, Italy and America, are currently exploring the healing properties of different types of clay.
When I was living in France, I learned about using clay for healing both taken internally and applied externally. It is just one of those things that has become a mainstream healing tool in French culture. It is definitely not considered an alternative practice in France. This is probably because not only is it a most effective material, but also because France is lucky enough to have some great sources of natural clay, that were undoubtedly used by rural people based on their experiential wisdom. It is also interesting to note that animals often use clay in the wild to heal themselves. For example, when animals get hurt, they look for muddy places and bathe the wounded parts of their bodies. Mammals, birds and reptiles also use clay internally, frequently eating it, even when they are healthy.
I love clay because it is effective for many different aspects of healing. I will describe some of the ways I’ve used clay below. Clay is inexpensive and therefore accessible to all and it is easy to use without any real dangers. I love digging my own clay out of the hillside on the mountain in Taos, where I live. I strain out little stones and other debris and get it into a fine powder to use. It’s just like wildcrafting, but using clay rather than plants!
Clay is a mineral that is formed over a very long period of time. Different types of minerals and rock have formed layers over millenia and different clays are formed, depending on the types of rocks that make up the different layers.
“Clay minerals typically form over long periods of time as a result of the gradual chemical weathering of rocks, usually silicate-bearing, by low concentrations of carbonic acid and other diluted solvents. These solvents, usually acidic, migrate through the weathering rock after leaching through upper weathered layers. In addition to the weathering process, some clay minerals are formed through hydrothermal activity. There are two types of clay deposits: primary and secondary. Primary clays form as residual deposits in soil and remain at the site of formation. Secondary clays are clays that have been transported from their original location by water erosion and deposited in a new sedimentary deposit”.2
Clays are distinguished by their adsorbent and absorbent qualities. Absorbency refers to the sponge-like quality mentioned above, that enables some clays to hold a certain amount of liquid in small chambers, like a sponge. Adsorbency refers to the amount of liquid or gas that can adhere to the surface of the clay rather than be held within, i.e. it’s a property of the surface rather than the volume. Adsorbent clays are able to exchange remove toxins from the skin and deliver minerals to the skin. Clays has powerful absorption properties and that’s why it’s good for removing toxins and impurities from the body, similar to charcoal.
Chemically, clays are made up of a wide range of molecules, including simple silicates, as well as complex aluminum, magnesium and iron-containing molecules. The differences in the available clays are mainly due to their structure and chemical composition. In France, I encountered three main groups of clay: kaolinite, illite and smectite. Clay contains a variety of trace elements depending on the geological nature of the rocks that the clay formed in. These include calcium, aluminum, magnesium, silica, potassium, sodium, sulphur, iron, titanium and manganese, amongst others. All these trace elements bring their healing properties to the clay. One that I feel is really important is silica. Silica is contained in large quantities in flint, quartz and clay. Clay is made up of approximately 50% silica. Silica is an important trace element for humans. It helps bind calcium, brings suppleness to the connective tissue of our joints, gives elasticity to arteries and it remineralizes and helps fractures heal. Silica is the main constituent of our connective tissues, hair and nails.
Some people worry about the fact that clay contains aluminum. However, in clay aluminum is tightly bound up in a large molecule with silicate, which is very stable and not absorbed by the human body. Therefore aluminum is unable to break off and is not absorbed by the human body.
About Montmorillonite Clay
Montmorillonite Clay is a very popular French clay and is part of the smectite group of clays. It is formed from volcanic ash and gets its name from a large deposit of clay found in a region in the mid-west of France, although there are similar clays found all over the world. It is particularly rich in aluminum-containing molecules and is often a grey color, although it can also be green, white or even blue. It is rich in silica and also contains some phosphates, potassium, magnesium oxide, iron and manganese. This clay is one of the most popular for digestive tract issues. Its capacity of adsorption helps with binding bacteria and soothing inflammation of the mucous membranes, while its absorption helps sponge up toxins that may be accumulated in the digestive tract. The best way to use it for digestive issues is to drink a tablespoon of clay, dissolved in a glass of water. Alternatively, you can mix it and then let the clay settle and drink only the water, which contains the more soluble parts of the clay. This water will still be cloudy but may be more palatable than the prior recipe. For external applications, this clay is excellent as a base for making poultices and compresses.
About Illite Clay
Illite Clay is a mica clay originating from acidic rocks, notably granite. It is very commonly found in the north of France. Although there are some similarities between illite and montmorollinite clays, they are also very different. Although illite contains aluminum silicate it is a non-expanding clay, meaning it doesn’t increase in volume when it’s applied, taken internally or when water is added to it. The size of its particles is also smaller. This clay contains only small quantities of aluminum-containing molecules (9%) and calcium salts (14%) and is rich in iron (nearly 9%). Above all, this clay has strong absorbing qualities. It is therefore an excellent edema treatment and is recommended for poultices on the skin for eliminating water and toxins from tissues, e.g. for abscesses, etc. Its remineralizing properties are weak. It is, however, interesting for helping to reduce swelling in sprains and fractures.
About Kaolinite Clay
Kaolinite Clay is often referred to as white clay. Its name comes form the Chinese town Kao-Ling, where this mineral was identified for the first time. European deposits are found mainly in France and Belgium. This clay forms in well-drained, acidic soils. Its crystals are often large and it is non-expanding. Its main use has been for the production of ceramic objects. For healing, it possesses a strong capacity to ‘cover.’ It contains a lot less of the metals and impurities found in green clays and it is for this reason that it is the one clay officially registered in the French Codex for pharmaceutical preparations.
For general recommendations for working with clay and sample clay recipes, see Part II.