Wellness fanatics are gaga over activated charcoal. But is it safe to take on an everyday basis? (Image by Cardinal/Corbis)
Green juices aren’t the only way to supposedly eliminate toxins in the body these days. A new trend is emerging in the detox department, and it involves charcoal.
But it might not be the charcoal you’re imagining. Activated charcoal is a fine carbon powder with innumerable pores that acts sort of like a magnet in your system (also, not what you use for grilling over the summer). The negatively charged carbon is treated with an oxidizing agent, and reportedly attracts and attaches to positively charged toxins in the body. From there, the charcoal flushes those toxins — ranging from the pesticides on your veggies to the neurotoxins in the air and toxins in your fish — out of your system when you eliminate.
Activated charcoal has been used for years in the ER to absorb toxins after inadvertent exposure to chemicals and to absorb medications after accidental overdoses. The multipurpose treatment has also been prescribed for digestive conditions, especially those that cause gas and bloating. In addition, claims suggest the ingredient may help whiten teeth, improve complexion, lower cholesterol, prevent hangovers and boost energy.
Today, though, detox devotees are using activated charcoal to simply cleanse their system of toxins, opting for the charcoal in juices or taking them in pill form as supplements.
Juice Generation has just unveiled a new line of three activated charcoal drinks, and L.A. hotspot Juice Served Here includes the ingredient in all its cleanse regimens. You can also buy the capsule form over-the-counter.
Too good to be true? Maybe. Some reports suggest loading up on the charcoal might not be so benign, and it comes with its own set of risks. Since the powder attracts and absorbs many substances, and you can’t exactly tell it which ones to avoid, it may prevent medications and nutrients from infiltrating your system properly. In addition, a report brought forth at the annual meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology in Philadelphia back in October suggested charcoal supplements may have also triggered a case of colitis in a man — contrary to the belief it may actually help treat some inflammatory bowel conditions.
The gut’s micro-biome is complicated, and the effects of any quick-fix forms of “detoxing” are usually short-lived, says gastroenterologist Gerard Mullin, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of the forthcoming The Gut Balance Revolution.
“People do all kinds of cleansing rituals, and there is something to be said about reducing the toll of toxins,” Mullin tells Yahoo Health. “But it takes a more sophisticated approach than purging the system in this capacity. Since activated charcoal can bind to medications and nutrients, which may be harmful, it’s not something I would promote.”
According to Frank Lipman, MD, an integrative and functional medicine specialist, too much charcoal might indeed work against you. “We used to use it many years ago, but in my experience, a lot of patients used to get constipated on it,” he tells Yahoo Health. “So, I’m wary of adding it to drinks and go it becoming a fad. Especially if you’re looking to detox, constipation not exactly the effect you want to achieve.”
Lipman believes activated charcoal has its place for a certain consumer, and it’s something you can try from time to time if you suffer from persistent digestive symptoms like gas and bloating — just talk to your doc first, especially if you take medications that the charcoal might mop up instead of allow the body to absorb. “I don’t think it’s all bad,” he says. “For relieving gas, I think it can absolutely work.”
But if you’re looking to purify and detox? You’re better off opting out. “Charcoal is still something you’ve got to be careful of,” Lipman says. “It’s just not a substance you want to be using in great quantities over time.”
Mullin agrees, saying the body’s internal processes aren’t something you should tamper with — especially when there’s insufficient scientific data on long-term effects, like with activated charcoal. “We talk about pharmacologic strategies and surgeries are complicated, but purging your system can have consequences,” he says. “Cleansing has risks, too.”
Keri Gans, MS, RD, author of The Small Change Diet, says you really don’t need activated charcoal (or a liquid diet) to cleanse your body. “The claims here can usually be achieved by simply cutting the processed junk food from your diet,” she says. “Our bodies already have the necessary tools to detox. It’s what the liver does everyday. Feed your body right, with adequate hydration, and it’ll do its job.”
Gans suggests opting to fuel up with high-fiber fruits like oranges, raspberries and apples; high-fiber veggies like spinach, kale, beets and carrots; and daily whole grains like oats, barley and quinoa to keep your digestive system primed. Think of it as an all-natural detox to ring in 2015.
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