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Ask the Diet Doctor: The Truth Behind Activated Charcoal

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Q: Can activated charcoal actually help rid my body of toxins?

A: If you Google “activated charcoal,” you’ll find pages and pages of search results exalting its amazing detoxifying properties. You’ll read that it can whiten teeth, prevent hangovers, reduce the effect of environmental toxins, and even detoxify your body from radiation poisoning after undergoing a CT scan. With a résumé like this, why aren’t more people using activated charcoal?

Unfortunately, these stories are all wellness fairytales. The purported benefit of activated charcoal as a detoxifier is a shining example of how knowing just a little bit of information—and not the whole story—can be dangerous. (Find out the Truth About Detox Teas, too.) 

Activated charcoal is usually derived from coconut shells, wood, or peat. What makes it “activated” is the additional process it undergoes after the charcoal is formed when it's exposed to certain gases at very high temperatures. This causes the formation of a large number of very small pores on the charcoal’s surface, which work as microscopic traps to take up compounds and particles. 

In the ER, the medical community uses activated charcoal to treat oral poisoning. (This is where that “detoxifying” claim comes from.) All the pores found on the surface of activated charcoal make it very effective at taking up and binding things like drugs or poisons that were accidentally ingested and are still present in the stomach or portions of the small intestines. Activated charcoal is often seen as a more effective alternative to stomach pumping in the emergency treatment of poisoning, but they can be used in concert.

Activated charcoal is not absorbed by your body; it stays in your digestive tract. So in order for it to work in poison control, ideally you need to take it while the poison in still in your stomach so it can bind the poison or drug before it gets too far into your small intestine (where it would be absorbed by your body). Thus the idea that activated charcoal ingestion will cleanse your body from the toxins inside doesn’t make physiological sense, as it only will bind things in your stomach and small intestine. It doesn’t discriminate between “good” and “bad” either. (Try one of these 8 Simple Ways to Detox Your Body.)

Recently, a juice company started putting activated charcoal into green juices. However, this could actually make their product less effective and healthful. The activated charcoal may bind nutrients and phytochemicals from fruit and vegetables and prevent their absorption by your body.

Another common misperception about activated charcoal is that it can prevent the absorption of alcohol, and thus reduce hangovers and the extent to which you get drunk. But this isn’t the case—activated charcoal doesn’t bind to alcohol very well. Plus, a study published in Human Toxicology found that after having a couple drinks, blood alcohol levels in study subjects were the same whether they took activated charcoal or not. (Instead, try a few Hangover Cures that actually work.)

 

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