Meet Amber Williford. Because of her food allergies to soy and dairy, Williford frequently experiences bloating and gas, especially after eating in restaurants. In search of relief, the holistic health coach read numerous online accounts of the benefits of taking activated charcoal supplements — and decided to try it.
Most commonly used in emergency settings to treat people who have been poisoned, activated charcoal is a superfine black powder that promises to entrap toxins in the body and help you excrete them during bowel movements.
Now, the substance is gaining popularity outside the ER, appearing as an ingredient in cold pressed juices, in supplements sold in stores like GNC and for use in powder form. The popular New York City-based juice and smoothie chain Juice Generation recently announced plans to add three raw activated charcoal juices to their menu — and more juice bars are sure to follow. Claiming to help treat everything from diarrhea, bloating and gas to improving skin care and whitening teeth, charcoal is being touted as the new key to a cleaner, healthier you.
But is activated charcoal a cure-all or just full of smoke? Read on to find out.
Activated Charcoal Benefits in Medicine
“It’s not a very specific absorber of substances. It will absorb anything in your gut, good and bad.”
Declared an “essential medicine” by the World Health Organization, activated charcoal is commonly used in medical settings to treat accidental poisonings or drug overdoses. The substance is created when carbon is treated with an oxidizing agent, resulting in superfine dust with millions of pores and an immense surface area.
It is this surface area that makes activated charcoal special, reducing the body’s absorption of toxic substances by an estimated 47 percent. How? Toxins are carried out of the body through a process called adsorption. Anything in your gut sticks to the surface of charcoal like a magnet and gets carried out through a bowel movement.
But the jury’s still out concerning whether or not this ingredient is safe for everyday use.
According to Dr. Linda Fan, attending physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, “It’s not a very specific absorber of substances. It will absorb anything in your gut, good and bad.” That includes any medication that you may be taking. “I wouldn’t use it without a medical professional’s advice,” she says.
Wellness Secret or Black Magic?
Williford, who ingested her charcoal in capsule form, claims the pills helped rid her system of an overgrowth of candida – yeast that lives in the digestive tract. “It has helped with the bloating,” Williford says, which had gotten so bad she says she sometimes looked several months pregnant.
Some natural health practitioners also say activated charcoal can be useful to treat minor digestive issues. For patients who experience an extended bout of diarrhea, Judy Fulop, N.D., M.S., a Naturopathic Practitioner at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University, says “Instead of taking something like Imodium to stop it, which doesn’t get to the cause of the problem, you can take something to bind to the toxins and move them out of the body.”
However, since the “runs” are the body’s natural reaction to digestive distress, it’s important to give your body at least 12 hours to purge the bad stuff by itself before turning to treatments such as charcoal, Fulop says.
But not all health care providers agree that charcoal should be used outside of a medical setting. While Dr. Gina Sam, Director of the Mount Sinai Gastrointestinal Motility Center at The Mount Sinai Hospital, has heard similar stories from her patients who reported decreased gas and bloating after taking activated charcoal, she does not use it in her practice. “There needs to be more scientific evidence to support its use,” she says.
The Black Line
This black, sandy substance may have a proven track record in urgent care settings, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to self-administer. If you decide to use it anyway, “Take it under the guidance of a doctor so they can track your liver and enzyme levels,” says Dr. Sam, to ensure your body is not becoming depleted of essential nutrients.
“Our liver and our spleen do a good job cleansing the body on their own.”
It’s also important to note that the powder, which will turn your stools black when ingested, can mask upper GI bleeding that may be a side effect of serious digestive distress.
“The biggest thing to keep in mind is to figure out the cause of your digestive problem before running to take activated charcoal. There might be something else going on in your system that is causing your symptoms,” says Fulop. “If you continue to have diarrhea or explosive gas, you do need to see your practitioner.”
As for the claims that activated charcoal will help purify your body from toxins? “We don’t really need to take anything special to detox,” says Melissa Burton, RD, CDE. “Our liver and our spleen do a good job cleansing the body on their own. Instead, people should eat a balanced diet with adequate micronutrients, exercise and maintain other healthy habits in order to keep the liver functioning well and to have a healthy body.”