Coconut shells, decaying peat, charred animal bones...
What do all of these things have in common?
They all make the latest "fad" in the diet and wellness world.
Recently, my assistant asked me about "activated charcoal" and whether or not those pitch-black drinks appearing all over her social media feeds were actually healthy.
Manufacturers claim activated charcoal can cure everything from yellow teeth to kidney disease. But are any of these claims true? And even if they are, will we put ourselves in danger by taking them?
The answers are a bit cloudy...
We've used charcoal in the health space for centuries... The first recorded use was around 1500 BC, when an Egyptian record detailed its use to rid wounds of bad smells.
These days, we use it primarily in case of an emergency. Hospitals sometimes use charcoal for emergency treatment after someone eats or drinks something dangerous. The activated charcoal prevents the substance from entering your bloodstream. That's because activated charcoal "sticks" to things like medications and toxins, allowing them to safely pass out of your body.
Activated charcoal gets its name from how it's made. Many forms of carbon, such as coconut shells, peat, and even animal bones, are heated in a way that turns the carbon to charcoal. It's "activated" because the heat then forms many tiny pockets within the charcoal. This drastically increases the surface area.
These activated charcoal pieces have so much surface area that adsorption improves, which is why lots of things stick to them... Including smelly bacteria and poison.
This is one of the allures of activated charcoal – the idea of a "detox cleanse." Since it can bind to most foods and chemicals, some folks take it to supposedly flush bad toxins from their body. You can even buy charcoal effervescent tablets to drop into your drink of choice.
Here's the thing... your liver already naturally detoxes you. That's why we hate juice cleanses and all of those extreme diets. So, it's really not necessary to take anything additional to "boost" this process. Most folks who take activated charcoal in pills or drinks aren't helping themselves. Worse, there's next to no evidence that it works, or that it doesn't cause long-term damage.
What we do know is that activated charcoal has shown some promise in adsorbing bacteria. That's why it has some success with alleviating gas and bloating in some folks. It's also good at reducing diarrhea for the same reason. One small trial found that folks with irritable bowel syndrome who took charcoal had more relief from their symptoms than those who took a placebo.
Similarly, lab-created activated charcoal helps patients with chronic kidney disease. Nearly 37 million Americans have this disease, which leads to kidney failure, a need for dialysis, and even death. Activated charcoal gets rid of toxins before they hit the bloodstream, so they don't make it to the kidneys for filtration. It basically filters your fluids before your kidneys do, making it easier on them.
But this feature also makes activated charcoal dangerous to take on your own if you're on any kind of medication.
If you are taking any medication... including vitamins, supplements, or any over-the-counter or prescription medication, do not take charcoal without talking to your doctor first.
Remember, charcoal sticks to drugs and helps them pass from your system without passing into your bloodstream. That means if you take charcoal, it would interfere with any drugs you also take, making them less effective (or not effective at all).
Activated charcoal pops up in health and beauty products as well. You'll find it in face washes, tooth whiteners, shampoos, and deodorants. The premise is that the charcoal does such a good binding to stuff, it'll bind to odor-causing bacteria, oils, dirt... you name it. Nearly anything you want to clean, there's a charcoal product you can buy for it.
But the research just isn't there. And since there's so little oversight for these products, there likely won't be. So far, it appears that topical uses won't do any harm, but again, there's little backup.
That said, folks on my research team use charcoal face washes and teeth whiteners and recommend them.
My main takeaway here – charcoal is likely fine for topical uses. It's certainly safer than some of the harsh chemicals in other face washes or toothpastes. And it's fine for gas or diarrhea on occasion if you aren't on any medications.
But don't swallow any if you take medication (at least not without chatting with your doctor first). And certainly don't binge on it for some cleanse nonsense.
Do you use charcoal products (other than on the grill, where I prefer them)? Let us know at [email protected].
What We're Reading...
- The tricky history of charcoal.
- Something different: It's Cybersecurity Month – time to give your computer a checkup.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
October 10, 2019