Is activated charcoal good for you?
POP INTO A HEALTH- FOOD store and you’ll be invited to eat or drink something called “activated charcoal”. Doing so is good, you’ll be told, and here we quote US product booster Dr Axe, because it will “trap toxins and chemicals in the body, allowing them to be flushed out so the body doesn’t reabsorb them”.
Is this claim true, or is activated charcoal just the latest fad intended mainly to flush out your wallet?
Well, the product is spruiked on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website, wherein the film-star – and, to quote The Guardian, purveyor of “anti-science, anti-fact garbage” – recommends its inclusion in chai, drinking water, bath bombs, toothpaste and skincare products, so that should send up red flags.
Like most health fad favourites, however, extravagant claims for its efficacy rest on a sliver of truth.
Since Hippocrates, charcoal has been an emergency treatment in cases of poisoning. The mechanics are simple. When the charcoal is put into a person’s stomach, it sucks in molecules from the poison, preventing them being absorbed into the bloodstream.
For more than a century, its efficacy has been increased by first heating it to 900 degrees Celsius and then subjecting it to either carbon dioxide or steam. This creates an internal pore structure that boosts its ability to absorb nasties. In this form, it is said to be “activated”.
So, if it’s been proven to work in hospital emergency departments on substances such as arsenic, why shouldn’t it also work to clean out other things, such as atmospheric soot, fast food burgers, or that stuff that floats on top of the turmeric lattes that Gwyneth also likes to recommend?
Well, because it doesn’t. For a start, the big black activated charcoal pills you buy in stores only contain about 250 milligrams of the stuff. The US National Capital Poison Center says that “to provide the same dose given in the emergency room could require hundreds of tablets”.
Time is also a factor. Emergency charcoal only works if it’s administered within an hour of the poison being ingested. The same applies for home (or café) use. Using it to absorb toxins from your breakfast muffin or last night’s beer binge is pointless.
Mind you, the charcoal doesn’t care. It doesn’t discriminate and will absorb whatever it encounters. This includes medications. Downing a charcoal shot – available online for just $5.50 – could do serious damage if you use it to wash down prescription pills.
Mostly, however, activated charcoal natural health products are simply a waste of money. This is not to say they have no effects whatsoever. They do. They cause nausea. And they turn poo extra-sludgy and black. Which is something Gwyneth doesn’t talk about very often.