What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal is exactly what it sounds like: Real charcoal that’s been heated to high temperatures to increase its adsorptive (not absorptive!) power - essentially, activate charcoal is known for its ability to detoxify the body. This gritty, black substance acts like a magnet, binding to toxins in the body and flushing them out.
What is activated charcoal used for?
Activated charcoal has long been used as a remedy against poisoning and drug overdose, making it a potent detoxifier in desperate situations. It can bind to certain substances and eliminate them from the body, which has made it a go-to product for emergency medical situations in which someone has ingested poison or overdosed. However, activated charcoal is not the perfect antidote and doctors will determine use on case-by-case basis.
Recently, activated charcoal has become more popular in the wellness world for its detoxifying properties, popping up not just in juice bars, but also in supplements, face masks, and even toothpaste! Proponents say activated charcoal products help the body with general detoxification - improving digestion, reducing gas and bloating, promoting healthy skin and kidney function, boosting energy, and more.
So should you jump on the activated charcoal trend? It depends on your individual needs and goals! While it’s intriguing to reach for the charcoal-infused juice, skin-care product, or supplement with its touted benefits, it’s important to learn more about certain products before introducing them into your routine, as well as potentially seek out medical advice if you’re taking certain medications.
Benefits of activated charcoal
The only way to find out if activated charcoal is right for you is to try it out yourself, starting small to see how it affects your body, and then increasing frequency or amount (or both). As mentioned before, always check in with your doctor before taking something new.
Proponents of activated charcoal trumpet these benefits:
Relieves indigestion, gas, and bloating:
Studies have shown that activated charcoal can reduce gas and abdominal cramps especially after carbohydrate-rich meals. Activated charcoal adheres to byproducts in the digestive tract that can cause discomfort, which are then flushed out of your system. A meta-analysis shows that activated charcoal may benefit people suffering from diarrhea, though further research is needed.
May help support kidney function:
One study found that activated charcoal may be beneficial in removing toxins from the kidneys, such as urea and indoxyl sulfate, a protein that must be excreted properly to prevent immune dysfunction associated with kidney disease. The kidneys play a key role in detoxification, and in one small study of those whose kidney function is impaired, activated charcoal plus a low-protein diet alleviated the need for emergency dialysis.
Relieves skin ailments:
Because of activated charcoal’s ability to extract toxins and bacteria from the body, it seems logical to be able to apply it to the skin for extraction of bacteria that can cause acne and other skin issues. Research is limited, but as more activated charcoal skin-care products become available, so is more anecdotal evidence that applying these products such as face masks can promote clearer, cleaner skin.
When it comes to other skin ailments, such as wounds from an injury, research has shown that dressings or coverings with activated charcoal can help remove toxins that would otherwise inhibit the healing process.
May improve cholesterol and overall heart health:
Research on how activate charcoal impacts cholesterol is somewhat limited due to the most recent significant study having been done decades ago and was very small in nature. This particular study concluded that activated charcoal may lower total cholesterol, triglycerides, and lipids in your blood by binding to and excreting bile salts that contained cholesterol in the digestive tract. With lower total cholesterol, triglycerides, and lipids, one’s heart health can improve.
Side effects of activated charcoal
Activated charcoal doesn’t discriminate when it comes to removing toxins from our system, which could make it harmful in a variety of ways. Many also argue that the benefits have not been conclusively proven by studies and believe the hype of consuming activated charcoal is overstated.
In addition, there are a few known downsides of consuming activated charcoal to consider:
May interact with medications:
Activated charcoal can prevent the proper absorption of medications. If you’ve spoken with your doctor about taking activated charcoal, it’s recommended that there’s at least a two-hour window between taking the activated charcoal and your medications.
May decrease efficacy of healthy diet and supplements:
You may make a great effort to eat well and supplement your diet where necessary, so you don’t want to potentially derail those efforts! The powerful adsorbent nature of activated charcoal could make our nutritious diets less so, inadvertently removing necessary vitamins and minerals.
It is not a cure-all:
Even considering its known detoxing benefits, activated charcoal cannot serve as a quick fix for overeating or excessive drinking.
Activated charcoal for pregnant or breastfeeding women:
While there have been no significant reports of activated charcoal causing birth defects or impacting the quality of breast milk, it’s key for any woman looking to add such a supplement to their routine to check with their doctor about any other potential risks.
Activated charcoal for those with underlying conditions:
People who have conditions associated with their liver or kidneys, or any other serious condition, must speak with their doctor before incorporating activated charcoal into their routine. Oral activated charcoal consumption may also not be appropriate for those experiencing dehydration, slow digestion, digestive blockage or bleeding, or just had surgery.
Supporting your body’s natural detoxification systems
At Integrative Nutrition, we think it’s great to keep an open mind to new wellness trends and experiment with different foods, supplements, and products. If activated charcoal sounds interesting to you, get educated on the facts and try it out to see how it makes you feel. There’s no one-size-fits-all diet, and more than that, the perfect diet and routine for you may change depending on the season, your age, or simply how you feel on a certain day.
It’s important to promote great health on a daily basis for ultimate long-term well-being. This looks like making diet and lifestyle choices every day that don’t necessarily produce “quick results,” but instead, add up over time. Eating a diet full of real foods that aren’t processed – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, quality protein, and healthy fats – nourishes your body's natural detoxification systems such as your liver, gut, and lymphatic system (the system that helps maintain immune function)!
By focusing on a lifestyle that promotes overall well-being, you won’t necessarily need to turn to fad detox trends or products, especially since there’s the potential to overturn some of that hard work you put in! Don’t get us wrong – it can be fun to try new face masks or pick up a charcoal-spiked green juice every once in a while – but we here at IIN love talking about how to create simple yet sustainable changes to our routines that create great health without relying on detox, diet, or “one size fits all” products.
If you’re curious how Integrative Nutrition takes a holistic approach to health and well-being, check out our Sample Class to get a sneak peek into our world-class Health Coach Training Program.