When you first hear the term “activated charcoal” you might not think of it as a health food – but it’s been rocking the nutrition world lately. Activated charcoal is touted as a powerful detoxifier, gas reducer, and more. Here’s my take on the research behind activated charcoal uses and benefits.
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What is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal, sometimes referred to as activated carbon, isn’t the same stuff you use to heat up a grill. Activated charcoal is often made from coconut and other nut shells and is “activated” with temperatures in the 600 – 1200º C range. That makes activated charcoal super porous and gives it lots of surface area, which makes it great at adsorbing toxins. Nope, that’s not a typo. Note that absorbing is different than adsorbing. Activated charcoal doesn’t actually soak up any toxins, it really just creates a porous space for toxins to bind to so they can be eliminated. Activated charcoal is sometimes used in emergency rooms to help remove poisonous substances that have been ingested, such as household cleaners, and has a long history of medicinal use. But its introduction to the nutrition world takes that detoxifying a step further.
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What Does Activated Charcoal Do?
Most research surrounding activated charcoal is related to its medical uses for toxin removal, though many people have started taking activated charcoal as a way to remove everyday toxins from the gastrointestinal tract, prevent hangovers, and help reduce gas and bloating. But does it really work?
As far as gas and bloating goes – several studies have found that consumption of activated charcoal alongside a gas-forming meal reduced the amount of gas, bloating, and cramping that participants experienced. However, other similar studies have found no such effects, finding that activated charcoal does not influence gas formation.
When it comes to reducing gastrointestinal toxins, here’s what the research says: One study of rats with chronic kidney disease found that ingestion of activated charcoal lowered levels of urea, colon damage, oxidative stress, and inflammation that are associated with colon damage. However, we don’t know if those results are applicable to humans.
The premise behind activated charcoal preventing hangovers is that it removes toxins from your body that are there alongside alcohol (like sulfites in wine, artificial sweeteners in mixers, etc). Since alcohol itself doesn’t actually bind to activated charcoal, it doesn’t have an effect on blood alcohol levels. The anti-hangover effects haven’t been studied – just anecdotal effects – so it’s a toss-up there!
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Activated charcoal might also have heart healthy properties. One study found that as the dose of charcoal increased (between 4 and 32 grams daily), serum total and LDL cholesterol-lowering effects also increased significantly.
How to Use Activated Charcoal
Activated charcoal most commonly comes in tablets or capsules, and you can find them in most health food stores. Loose powder is usually used for cosmetic applications, but the tablets and capsules make it much more manageable for consuming. It’s flavorless and odorless, but loose activated charcoal will stain any porous surfaces (like tile grout), so keep an eye out for that.
image: The Magic of Charcoal
Activated charcoal isn’t known to be toxic, but consuming it alongside some medications and supplements might inhibit their absorption, so make sure you don’t take it with other medications or vitamins.
Should I Take Activated Charcoal?
If you have trouble with frequent gas and bloating and persistent high cholesterol, taking activated charcoal might be worth a shot to see if it works for you. There’s not enough research out there to know for sure whether it will drastically improve your health in any way, so I won’t be rushing out to the store for it immediately. All in all, if you find that it improves your GI symptoms or makes you feel great – go for it – but take all the hype with a grain of salt…er, charcoal.
image: Toronto Star
I wouldn’t necessarily run to activated charcoal for a detox, but one thing I do love it for is the spooky color! You can have lots of fun creating black smoothies with the addition of activated charcoal for “mystery flavors” or festive Halloween treats.
Have you ever taken activated charcoal? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!