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Is activated charcoal a real diamond or is it just rough?

What you need to know about activated charcoal


Whether it is drinking a pitch-black juice, sipping on a coaly chai, adding scoops of dark- powder to your smoothies, eating carbon-coloured confectioneries, or taking black pills in the morning; activated charcoal is trending. Activated charcoal is not only being used in industrial, chemical and agricultural applications but it is now also being found in face-masks, shampoos, toothpastes, food products and supplements – it seems like black is back.

The use of activated charcoal dates way back to the ancient Egyptians. They used charcoal for both industrial purposes as well as to relieve intestinal ailments. Through time its use continued, and its health claims grew. Now, activated charcoal is almost everywhere you look.


Well, what is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal, also known as activated carbon, is made from coconut shell, peat, hard and soft wood, different types of coal and other carbonaceous materials. Through heating and chemical oxidation, the charcoal is purified and crushed, thus activating it. This activated form of carbon is very porous, containing many tiny holes, giving it an increased surface area. The result is a sponge-like magnet, that can suck up a variety of chemicals that come in its way.


The role of activated charcoal in clinical medicine 

This en vogue powder plays an important, long-standing role in the emergency rooms of hospitals, with continued medical relevance as confirmed in the Clinical Journal of British Pharmacology, by Professor Juurlink . Due to its ability to ‘hoover’ up and absorb foreign substances and chemicals in the gastrointestinal tract, activated charcoal is given orally in the treatment of a drug-overdose or an accidental ingestion of a poisonous substance, where there is a risk of toxicity. Administering the charcoal within one hour of ingestion of toxic substances, at a specifically calculated dose, allows it to bind to the drug or poisonous substance in the gut, preventing it from being absorbed into the bloodstream.


The buzz around charcoal today

Although taken in much smaller doses than used in the emergency room, the food supplement and health industry has certainly seemed to capitalize on the variety of health claims being made when it comes to the benefits of activated charcoal. The real question is whether these claims are true and, above all, is there scientific evidence supporting them.

Cleansing. If you are looking for a magic pill or drink to ‘detox’ or ‘cleanse’ your body then I fear you may be looking down the wrong black hole. With activated charcoal’s incredible binding capabilities, “attracting” and removing toxic substances from your stomach, it is understandable where these detoxing claims come from. The charcoal will pull both toxins, such as poison, and other substances out of the gut and remove them as waste products. It does not, however, get absorbed into your body which means that it doesn’t ‘detoxify’ anything other than whatever you may have swallowed within a similar time-frame. The environmental ‘toxins’ we are looking to remove are not found in our gut. Our bodies have their own complex detoxification systems, and although there are bioactive compounds that have been scientifically proven to activate the genes that stimulate phase 1 and phase 2 detoxification enzyme production, charcoal is not one of them.

Bloating. When it comes to treating that uncomfortable, bloated feeling, charcoal has also been in the spotlight. While some studies show that the charcoal is successful in reducing flatulence and bloatedness, others contradict these results. In addition, there have been very few randomized controlled trials to test this theory, and the studies that have been done are either on animals, small sample groups or quite outdated. This forces me to say that there is not enough evidence to support this claim.


Is it safe to take?

Although there is no evidence of toxicity from taking activated charcoal in such small amounts, there may be some rare side effects depending on the amount and frequency of administration, ranging from vomiting to constipation. The real concern is: if this activated binder removes toxic substances from our gut, what good substances is it also removing and is it interacting with our medication?

Ironically it may be the nutrients, such as vitamin C and B as well as other minerals and antioxidants, that are needed for your body’s innate ability to detoxify, that also get removed. That ‘healthy’ charcoal fruit smoothie ain’t looking as healthy any more.

In addition to this, the charcoal can interact with the absorption of certain medications making them less effective – especially if consumed constantly. It can affect the absorption of anti-depressants as well as other drugs, but really concerning is its ability to interact with the birth control pill.


What now?

Unless you have swallowed harmful substances, activated charcoal is not the diamond you are looking for. Besides for looking hip and its emergency room use, there is no significant evidence to show any benefits. Stop wasting your money and start focusing on whole foods and ways to nourish your body where it counts.

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