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 pre-historic 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 learnt 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 millennia 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 re-mineralizes 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.
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.
Iliite 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 iIllite 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 re-mineralizing properties are weak. It is however interesting for helping to reduce swelling in sprains and fractures.
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.
General Recommendations for Using Clay for Healing
1) Avoid using anything metal with clay. Do not use metal utensils or bowls to mix the clay. For bowls and utensils, it’s best to stick to glass, stone, clay or enamel.
2) Only use wooden or plastic spatulas or spoons when mixing clay with water.
3) Do not heat clay before use. If you want a warm application place the bowl with the clay in a bain-marie, i.e. a double boiler and check the temperature of the clay carefully to avoid burns.
4) For internal use, start gradually. At the beginning, let the glass with water and clay sit overnight and drink only the water at first, but not the clay settled at the bottom. After you are used to this, e.g. after several days, you can drink the water with the clay still fully dissolved, i.e. right after you’ve mixed it.
5) Do not reuse clay that you’ve used for a compress. Just recycle it, even in your yard. It should never be re-used for healing.
6) Always finish the full course of a clay treatment. Don’t stop too soon. Your body needs a certain amount of time to react to the healing activity of the clay.
7) Do not keep clay in plastic containers.
8) Avoid taking clay internally when taking other medication, since it can dramatically decrease the absorption of medications.
Using Clay Externally
Compresses, also known as poultices or cataplasms, are a good and common way to use clay externally. Use them for sprains and muscle aches, burns and skin ailments. Some symptoms can get worse before they get better, which is especially common when using clay for healing. However, if a negative reaction such as abnormal tiredness, insomnia, or nervousness persists for more than three to four days, stop the treatment, at least for a while. After an operation, clay can be very helpful to heal scars and wounds. Wait until the stitches have been taken out to start start the clay treatment.
Instead of mixing clay with water, you can use herbal teas, herbal decoctions, hydrosols, honey and oils containing essential oil blends. (See below for some recipes.) Powdered medicinal plants can also be added to the dry clay before adding the water, herbal tea or hydrosol. The quality of water used for mixing clay is very important. It should be spring or mineral water, if possible, ideally collected from the source.
Preparing Clay Compresses
With regards to the ratio of clay and water when mixing, bear in mind that every clay is different and so different amounts of water are needed for each clay to properly hydrate. A good guideline for Montmorillonite clay, which is a swelling clay, is around 2.2 parts water per ounce of clay. Because illite and kaolin clays swell much less, they only need approximately one part water to one part clay. For a successful compress, the clay should not be too runny or it will dissolve and spread everywhere and not remain thick enough on the area being treated. A good clay compress should hold together on its own, and be easily malleable and not too dry. The amount you make depends on the size of the area you are treating. The compress needs to be about ¾ inch thick and go beyond the treatment area by at least 1 inch on all sides.
Depending on the area to be treated, you can either apply to clay to the skin and then wrap it or put the clay in the wrap and then apply. For the first method, place the clay directly onto the treatment area and then cover with a compress, e.g. a piece of cotton material, such as a gauze pad. Then wrap the clay with bandage or a plaster. Alternatively, I often put the proper amount of clay on the cotton first and then apply both directly to the area. Wrap the bandage around the treatment area but, if possible, do not wrap the bandage over the treatment area so as not to put too much pressure where the clay is. It is not advisable to put gauze or a cotton pad between the skin and the clay. For sprains and muscular problems, I often make a massage blend with carrier oil and essential oils that I apply to the skin before applying the clay compress. This way, the essential oils is easily absorbed by the skin and the carrier oil lubricates the skin and prevents the compress from sticking. This is especially important if there is body hair in the area where you apply the compress, since without this, the hair gets stuck in the dry clay and it can be uncomfortable to remove the dried compress. In most cases compresses dry and come off easily after a couple of hours. Two hours is a good time to keep a compress applied, unless it dries out completely beforehand. However, when putting a compress near a draining wounds I would advise changing it as often as possible. Some compresses can even be kept on over night. Make the compress thicker if applying over night. If the compress or poultice is applied to an inflamed, fevered and congested body part, it will act to cool. If it is applied to a part where there is stagnation, coldness and humidity, the aim is that the clay should tone and revitalise. To help heat the body, the clay can be progressively heated in a bain-marie, in the sun or next to a fire or radiator. You may notice that sometimes clay that’s applied cold gets heated up by just the heat of the body. This is a sign of good vitality.
Clay can help heal burns rapidly and reduce scarring. Sprinkle some powdered clay directly onto the burn and then apply cold poultices. In the case of burns, it is advised to put gauze or a cotton between the burn and the clay, and this is a rare exception. The poultice should be taken off as soon as the burning sensation in the treatment returns. Renew the compress every hour for the first day, every 2 hours the second and third day and every 4 hours for the fourth and fifth day and then every 6 hours for the sixth and seventh day. After that apply only twice a day, mornings and evenings, until new skin tissue has formed. In case of burns, hydrosols can be used instead of water to make the compress. Hydrosols of the following plants are very good for burns: St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia), plantain (Plantago sp.), and others.
Here are two ways of applying essential oils and clay for sprains:
1) Oil first then compress: Massage the affected area with 3 drops of neat Helichrysum italicum (immortelle) essential oil immediately, before applying the compress. OR blend 90 drops of Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen) in 50ml carrier oil, e.g. jojoba oil, which penetrates well. Massage the area with either oil and then apply a ¾ inch thick compress.
2) Oil mixed into compress:
Blend the following essential oils in 2 tablespoons of carrier oil (arnica oil is excellent for muscular problems):
Eucalyptus citriodora (Lemon eucalyptus) 2 drops
Gaultheria procumbens (Wintergreen) 2 drops
Helichrysum italicum (Immortelle) 2 drops
Laurus nobilis (Bay Laurel) 2 drops
Mentha piperita (Peppermint) 2 drops
Mix this in with the clay before adding the water for the compress.
Boils and Abscesses
Clay is excellent for getting rid of pus and helping the organism to restructure and heal the tissues. It also helps calm the inflammation triggered by the infection and draw out the abscess.
Blend in a tablespoon of liquid (i.e. not cystalized) raw honey:
Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) 2 drops
Chamaemelum nobilis (Roman chamomille) 2 drops
Pelargonium asperum (Geranium) 2 drops
Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender) 2 drops
Origanum vulgaris (Oregano) 2 drops
Add this to the clay before adding the water and then apply the compress. It is important to keep applying poultices until the abscess is completely emptied of all pus and the wound is clean. Do not let the clay dry completely on open wounds, i.e. remove it before it has dried.
Using Clay Internally
Clay has traditionally been used internally to remove toxins. Its actions are similar to charcoal: it captures bacteria, viruses, toxins including alkaloids, etc. and reduce their bio-availability from the gastrointestinal tract to the organism. Rural farmers near lake Titicaca in Peru, who traditionally grow many varieties of potatoes, make a sauce with clay that they serve to accompany certain potatoes in order to adsorb some of the glycogen-alkaloids and solanin, which is a toxic constituent in potatoes and other members of the solanaceae (nightshade) family. (3)
In France nowadays, certain clays are officially used in hospitals for digestive problems such as diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, gastric-oesophagus problems (such as reflux, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), PUD (peptic ulcer disease), esophageal abnormalities), functional digestive problems, duodenal infections, colic, bloating and flatulence, etc. (4) The layers of aluminum-containing molecules in clay have a very effective anti-inflammatory action and the silica acts as a wound healer. Clay is also used in many parts of the world against intestinal parasites. It is thought that it not only helps calm the symptoms triggered by the presence of parasites, but can actually get rid of them, probably due to absorption and adsorption.
Clay taken internally can help cleanse the colon and regulate intestinal bacterial balance. By adjusting pH levels, clay can also help restore health to the digestive environment and overall digestive functioning. It can stimulate the liver, which can be useful after exposure to heavy metals or harsh chemical treatments and for other detoxification protocols.
When using clay internally, allow the organism time to adjust to it. Begin in the morning on an empty stomach with a small glass of water and one tablespoon of dry, powdered clay. Some people drink the diluted clay, other people prefer to allow the clay to settle and drink only the water. Do this for three days and then take four days off, repeat this pattern for ten to fifteen days after which the body should have adapted to the clay and you could then undertake a 21 day treatment for example.
Although clay is a very safe remedy, there are a couple of things to be aware of: clay can sometimes cause constipation. It should not be used by people suffering from high blood pressure, as it can cause an increase in blood pressure in certain people. Clays should not be taken internally if someone is taking other medications, as the clay can interfere with the absorption and effects of these medications.
I love simple and effective remedies that have survived the test of time, and are are cheap and accessible, easy to use and safe. I hope this article will give you the basics for discovering the healing properties of this amazing mineral that we probably originated from and which was at the beginning of life on Earth.
(3) Johns T. (1986), Detoxification function of geophagy and domestication of the potato. Journal of Chemical Ecology 12
(4) Thesis – Doctorat en Medicine, Diplome d’etat – Les Silicates d’alumine (argiles) en therapeutique by Jade Allegre