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What is activated charcoal?
We aren’t talking about gnawing on one of the briquettes you use to fire up your grill. Although activated charcoal does start out that way—it goes one step further.
To make activated charcoal, the regular stuff you’re used to seeing at a barbecue (which is typically made of wood or coconut shell) is treated with gas at a very high temperature, says Adam Burke, Ph.D., director at the Institute for Holistic Health Studies and a professor of health education at San Francisco State University. That process leaves the surface extremely porous, which allows it to soak up any chemicals it comes in contact with.
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The soot-colored substance is typically sold in powder, capsule or tablet form, and recently, it’s being stirred into feel-good-promising drinks, like coffee, juice and water. It’s even become a staple ingredient in beauty products, from charcoal shampoo to charcoal toothpaste.
Even though it’s just hitting its stride in the specialty health space, it’s not new. Hospitals and poison control centers have long relied on it to treat poisonings and drug overdoses. “It’s also used in air and water filters, for sewage treatment, and even in manufacturing vodka,” Burke says.
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Why the sudden hype?
The invasion can be pegged to this: Activated charcoal advocates say it can help detox, and anything that promises a good internal cleaning piques interest. “Many things related to detoxification are built up with a lot of hype,” says Gabrielle Francis, N.D., a naturopathic doctor in New York City and author of The Rockstar Remedy. Detoxing is buzzy, and since activated charcoal claims to do just that, “it happens to be the star of the season,” Francis adds. (Here are 7 ways to detox your body naturally.)
There are also assertions that it can help with a hangover, lower cholesterol, and prevent gas.
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Does it work—and is it safe?
Yes, activated charcoal is safe, says David Lans, D.O., an assistant clinical professor of medicine at New York College. But it’s not recommended that you suck down the stuff on a regular basis, he adds.
There are side effects. “One concern regarding the frequent use of activated charcoal is that one has no control over exactly what substances are being bound to it,” Lans says. “While you may be taking it to detox and rid your body of toxins, vital nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, may also be bound and excreted.”
Aside from its proven track record of helping after being poisoned, there is also research that shows it can help with gas—but not much proof that it’s effective at doing anything else, Burke says. (Here are 8 healthy uses for activated charcoal—and 3 you can skip).
“There’s only one time that ingesting activated charcoal is truly necessary—and that’s if you mistakenly eat something poisonous,” says Karen Ansel, RDN, a nutritionist and author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer. “But even in this situation, you should never try to self-treat, as you really need medical assistance.” And while, yes, it may detox your body, Ansel adds: “The detox claim is relatively new, so we’re just learning about the downsides of using activated charcoal for those purposes. However, theoretically, it could ironically bind to phytonutrients that actually help aid your liver in the detoxification process.”
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But some experts say activated charcoal’s ability to help you detox is not a complete miss. “The body has natural detoxifying mechanisms—the liver—but in today’s highly toxic environment, we are simply overwhelmed with more toxins than our body is able to naturally remove,” Lans says. “Pesticides, herbicides, and other chemical substances, are present in our food and water supply. Humans evolved with detoxifying systems in place, but our ancestors simply did not experience the kind of chemical exposure we do in the world today.”
What to do before you try it
Before you go to the dark side, the most important thing to remember is to discuss the decision with your doctor. “There is research which shows that activated charcoal may reduce the effectiveness of medicines, like birth control pills and aspirin,” Burke says. It may also interfere with anti-depressants.
Also, it’s best to consume activated charcoal in the evenings, so it has the least potential to pull important nutrients from your body, Francis says. And not all activated charcoal is created equal. “For health purposes, the best form of activated charcoal is from coconut—it can be made from coal and other unhealthy sources,” she adds.