Charcoal: What’s the Big Deal?

 

Original post written for Dirt Online - here

Activated charcoal is popping up in supplements, drinks, and beauty products. But does grey water really live up to the hype? We’re so quick to idolize certain products and trends and demonize others (cough, cough gluten) but it’s not always that black and white (pun intended).

Activated charcoal can be made from a variety of substances like coal, wood, coconut shell, even petroleum. It becomes ‘activated’ when its surface area increases heating and oxidization. It’s sometimes used as a powder or encapsulated for supplementation.

Charcoal is often marketed as a detoxification product because of its adsorptive properties. The high surface area is responsible for many of the purported health benefits, because when taken orally it adsorbs toxins and increases their clearance from our bodies. Absorption is different than adsorption though, and it’s easy to confuse the two. Absorption happens when we eat food and assimilate its nutrients into the body’s circulation. Adsorption is when particles stick to a surface. With activated charcoal, chemicals and heavy metals stick to its high surface area and then are completely eliminated from the body.


The Believers

 

POISONING & OVERDOSES

The most ‘official’ use for activated charcoal is for those who have overdosed on drugs. An overdose becomes deadly once drugs enter the system in amounts that exceed the body’s capacity to detoxify them. Activated charcoal prevents the absorption of these harmful substances, thereby protecting the body. Definitely don’t try this one at home.

WINNING SMILES

An non-traditional addition to your tooth care regimen, activated charcoal helps whiten teeth by binding to plaque and other microscopic particles responsible for staining teeth after sipping coffee or tea. Start brushing with activated charcoal 2-3 times per week and see for yourself. Beware: It can stain surfaces, clothing, and some dental work (like porcelain veneers, caps and crowns).

CHOLESTEROL MANAGEMENT

Activated charcoal lowers cholesterol just like increased fiber intake. Cholesterol exists in digestive juices, which is the main way it leaves the system. Caveat: it is quickly reabsorbed unless something like fiber or charcoal can bind and facilitate the elimination. But it’s really more of a band-aid solution, and doesn’t address the reason cholesterol levels are high in the first place.


The Skeptics

 

IT BINDS TO EVERYTHING…EVEN THE GOOD STUFF

If you’re on medication or taking supplements, it can reduce how well they function. So if you’re really into trying charcoal, make sure to take it on an empty stomach and at least 3 hours away from medications or supplements, even after eating food. Although it’s excellent at pulling toxins from the gut, it also binds and eliminates essential nutrients, which is massively counterproductive to optimizing nutritional status.

DIGESTION WOES

Using activated charcoal can cause constipation—which is also counterproductive since optimizing elimination is critical to detoxifying the body. Either way, just keep tabs on your regularity.

NOT A HANGOVER SOLUTION

Internet rumors have bred a general consensus that charcoal is good for a rough morning start. But it actually binds poorly with alcohol. Some research does show that drinking activated charcoal with alcohol reduces blood alcohol concentrations when ingested together, but not the following day. Take B complex vitamins instead to optimize the liver’s detoxification process.