Throughout my career I’ve seen dozens of supplements come and go in terms of trendiness, from herbs and amino acids, to antioxidants and extracts. A few years ago it was raspberry ketones and green coffee bean extract (remember the Dr. Oz controversy?), but more recently detox teas and now activated charcoal seem to be popping up as the latest natural remedies.
Early on in my career I worked in a hospital, as well as a substance abuse rehabilitation center, so I am familiar with the medicinal use of activated charcoal. Similar to common charcoal for your grill, activated charcoal is typically made from peat, coal, wood, or coconut shells, treated in a way that makes it very porous, or "activated." It’s used commonly in emergency rooms to treat poisoning and drug overdoses due to its ability to “trap” chemicals and prevent them from being absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract into the blood.
Apparently health enthusiasts theorized that if activated charcoal can “soak up” dangerous substances, perhaps it should be used routinely, as a way to cleanse the body of other toxins we’re exposed to like pesticides and chemicals in food packaging. Sounds logical, right?
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It does to a legion of juice drinkers out there: After Juice Generation started adding two teaspoons of the stuff to it's concoctions, juices with activated charcoal became the company's best-selling line. There are also myriad activated charcoal supplements you can buy online, promising to help with gas, and some people are even using it to whiten their teeth. Unfortunately, though, it's not that simple. Here are three things you should know about activated charcoal before reaching for it.
Activated charcoal can bind to beneficial substances too
Activated charcoal doesn't distinguish between wanted and unwanted substances. That means it can also bind to nutrients, including vitamin C and B vitamins, as well as other dietary supplements, and prescription medications, preventing them from getting into your bloodstream.
In other words drinking it in juice, for example, may actually make the produce you're gulping less healthy in some ways, not more. The most important thing to remember about anything claiming a "detoxifying" benefit is that your body is equipped with a liver, kidneys, lungs, and digestive system, which work around the clock to perform "detoxing" functions. If you want to help them out, the best things you can do are to drink plenty of water, eat foods that naturally enhance your body's ability to "detox," such as beets, ginger, turmeric, and cruciferous veggies (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale), and not consume artificial additives and processed foods.
Activated charcoal can actually cause digestive distress
The use of activated charcoal to help with gas isn't well studied and the research is conflicting, but it has also been known to cause nausea and vomiting. It can also trigger constipation, slow the movement of food or waste through the digestive system, or even lead to a serious intestinal blockage. And one recent report from George Washington University suspects that activated charcoal may have caused colitis (inflammation in the colon) in one patient who repeatedly used it to detoxify his body on his own. In other words, it's unclear how it will affect you individually.
There is no known safe dosage
Because activated charcoal is not routinely used preventatively, studies haven’t been conducted about its long-term effectiveness, or safety, much less an optimal amount to take. So while it may seem beneficial and benign, you could be harming your health in ways we don’t yet understand. Bottom line: activated charcoal has been used as medicine for years in emergencies. And some physicians may recommend it to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy or long-term dialysis. However, more research is needed in both of these areas, and in my opinion it’s too early to embrace as a home remedy or everyday wellness strategy.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor. She privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is also the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the New York Yankees MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.