Is Activated Charcoal Healthy?


When I hear the word charcoal, it reminds me of my dad pouring lighter fluid over a bed of charcoal preparing for our BBQ. This was years ago, but I still remember the smell of the charcoal and the grey ashes when it was done burning. Flash forward, people are now INGESTING activated charcoal to help detox their bodies. Huh?  Since this sounded extremely bizarre to me, I sent nutrition intern Rachel Feldman on a quest to investigate this new trend. Read her guest blog post on whether or not it is healthy.


With so many food trends popping up these days it’s hard to keep track of what’s “good” and “bad” in the nutrition world. You may have seen activated charcoal in pill form, added to facial products, toothpaste and even ice cream!  And of course, in our never ending quest to detox our bodies, it’s being added to smoothies and juices and is touted as the next “miracle cure”. Read on to get the low-down.

Where does charcoal come from?
First of all, despite the recent buzz, it’s not new. It’s been around long before the 19thcentury when the ancient Egyptians and Greeks used it as a multi-purpose poison and disease antidote. Charcoal comes from organic matter such as coconut shells, wood, bamboo and coal. They are burned and the result is charcoal. To activate it, charcoal is heated to a high temperate with the presence of a gas and pores form.

How it works
Charcoal is used to draw out impurities. The charcoal is heated with gas to activate the carbon causing tiny pore like holes to form. These holes trap in impurities and pushes them out of the body causing a “detox” of sorts.

Potential benefits
I always like to look for scientific studies when talking about health benefits of a food/product. Well, there isn’t too much to find.
Proponents of activated charcoal claim the following:
– Used in toothpaste to help whiten teeth by binding to stains and lifting them off the tooth. There isn’t much evidence on this so use with caution.

– Used in face masks and skin care products with the same goal of lifting impurities out of the skin. In reality, the medications associated in these skin products such as salicylic acid, are causing more of the skin healing benefits than the actual charcoal itself. Reference 

-Used as supplements and added to smoothies and drinks to detox the body. No research here – sorry! The claims behind this one are based on theory, not research.

– May help in emergency situations such as drug overdoses, poisonings and unsafe drinking water, by absorbing these harmful drugs/ bacteria and ushering them out of the body. Now here is where there is concrete evidence

Risks
With the “potential” good, often comes the potential for harm.

– Since the activated charcoal does not get absorbed by the body and it is only a vehicle for these impurities, it continually absorbs nutrients while traveling through your stomach and small intestines. When trapping these unwanted impurities, the activated charcoal may grab onto the good nutrients as well. This may cause deficiencies in some vitamins and minerals if constant activated charcoal intake occurs.

– It may interfere with the absorption of medications, making them less or non-effective.

-Additionally, the efficacy of birth control may be compromised as well because the charcoal absorbs the medicine before your gut can. It’s important to remember this when relying on the pill as a sole form of contraception.

-May cause constipation or diarrhea (if your charcoal tablets contain sorbitol) … even the labels warns you it may turn your stools black.

How does the detox drink taste?
Um … sorry Juice Press. We love you but don’t love the taste of this drink. Martha and I each took a sip and had to throw out our pricey drink. 

Bottom Line:
At this time, we feel there isn’t enough research to recommend it as having health benefits. It may even be dangerous to some
individuals due to its effect on decreasing absorption of medications and potentially causing nutritional deficiencies if consumed frequently. But if you don’t want to give it up, just consume in moderation – and be sure to check with your doctor if you are taking any medications.

 Lastly, is it worth the $10 for a charcoal containing juice that doesn’t live up to it’s health claims? Keep in mind that your liver and kidneys detox your body for free daily, so consider skipping the black stuff and let your body work naturally. Tip: a natural detox could include lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, turmeric and cayenne pepper, antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables and your hardworking liver and kidneys!

Sources
https://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/a19994143/charcoal-pills/
https://www.womenshealthmag.com/beauty/a19955655/charcoal-skin-benefits/
https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-269/activated-charcoal https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0008816/?report=details

 

I‘d like to thank Rachel Feldman for writing this post. Rachel Feldman is a graduate of Syracuse University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics. Rachel is currently a Dietetic Intern with Priority Nutrition Care Distance Dietetic Internship. She enjoys hiking, cooking and yoga. 

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