Activated charcoal has been spreading like wildfire across social media feeds around the globe. Long used for treating poisoned patients and purifying water, activated charcoal’s signature black hue is now popping up on Instagram with innovative and beautiful ways to use it in everything from charcoal lattes, charcoal toothpaste and charcoal waffles—and much more.
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Instagrammers may love activated charcoal, but does your body? And more importantly, does it actually stand up to the claims that people are making? Here’s what you need to know about the next big supplement (and food!) trend hitting a social feed and health store near you.
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal is the product of chemical reactions involving carbon-containing (that is, organic) matter. The term “activated” indicates that the charcoal has been stripped away of its natural impurities and so it can “adsorb” or bind with other molecules.
Because of this, activated charcoal has been especially useful for cleansing poisoned patients ever since its binding abilities were first discovered. Charcoal use dates back to ancient times, though the activated form is a fairly recent discovery. Today, the substance is being touted as the solution for nearly everything, including easing hangovers, tackling acne and providing a full-body cleanse by ridding the body of any impurities it may be harboring.
Is activated charcoal safe for consumption?
The binding trait that attracts many people to it ironically doubles as the same reason that activated charcoal can sometimes be problematic. While not really dangerous in-and-of itself, it can interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients or medications that haven’t yet been metabolized into your body. Because of its super adsorbent nature, any molecule in its path will likely get soaked up and trapped – good and bad ones alike. While this might make it perfect for capturing and eliminating toxins, it also means it does the same with important vitamins and minerals that your body actually needs for good health.
Does activated charcoal actually work?
People have been turning to activated charcoal as a holistic detox system to cleanse their bodies in a hopeful one-size-fits-all solution. While it’s true that it’s been successfully used in hospitals during emergency detox situations, it’s important to realize that it only helps if administered immediately after consuming poisons. That’s because the charcoal stays confined to the stomach and GI tract, making it unable to reach toxins that have already spread into the blood steam and the rest of the body.
Few studies have been done to prove the claims that people are touting to be true. While some studies have shown that it can improve indigestion and adsorb gases to prevent abdominal pain and bloating, another study reported the opposite. Yet despite the lack of a huge body of documented evidence and proof, you should know this: the World Health Organization (WHO) listed activated charcoal on their list of “Essential Medicines.”
What are the associated risks?
Many experts agree that activated charcoal can be safely consumed on a short-term basis. This means you can feel free to turn to charcoal to test out some of its popular uses like curing food poisoning, hangovers and gas. Temporary, isolated ailments like these don’t require long-term use of a charcoal supplements, which increase the risk of adverse effects.
The sometimes-exaggerated claims behind the supplement have led many to believe that activated charcoal is also beneficial as an overall general health-booster. But since it doesn’t stay in the GI tract for long it would be impossible, as studies have shown. However, aside from certain side effects like constipation, black stools, or some rarer but serious effects, WebMD and other experts agree that short-term use is generally safe.
So how can you take activated charcoal safely? If you are going to consume it at all, we recommend that you do so at least two hours before or after taking any medication or other nutritional supplements. Otherwise you run the risk of the charcoal binding and eliminating your meds before they can be fully absorbed, deeming them ineffective.
Whether you decide to try the activated charcoal fad or not, remember this: relying on a single product as the cure-all for every health challenge or ailment can be problematic, and probably lead to less-than-effective results. So before you fall into the Instagram trap and bet your entire health on it, get informed. Read quality supplement reviews to determine the best supplements that will help you meet your goals.