CAN ACTIVATED CHARCOAL REALLY DETOXIFY YOUR BODY? HERE’S WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS

Are all the claims around activated charcoal as a magical detox ingredient real? Let’s break down some of them, and get to know what’s true and what’s false.


BY: ROSE MATTSON, MS, RD

There’s been an increasing trend of foods and products with activated charcoal lately. That black ice cream cone? Charcoal. Dark, gothic looking lattes? Charcoal. Black toothpaste or face masks? Also charcoal.

So what exactly is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal can be made from coconut shells, peat, coal, olive pits, sawdust, or bone char that is exposed to extremely high temperatures, creating an exceptionally porous substance with high surface area. 

Due to its high surface area and porous nature, activated charcoal easily binds to substances in the gastrointestinal tract, decreasing absorption of those substances. While this internet sensation not only looks visually interesting, there are numerous health benefits that have been touted as well.  From improving kidney functions to reducing gas to trapping toxins, there are many claims that are floating around on how activated charcoal helps your body cleanse and detox.

Sounds almost too good to be true, right? Well, that is your first red flag. Let’s take a closer look at what the research says around its benefits and use.

1. Poisoning and overdoses

Activated charcoal is indeed used in the hospital setting as a treatment for overdoses and poisoning. According to the Mayo Clinic, activated charcoal helps prevent certain poisons from being absorbed into the body. Several doses of activated charcoal may be needed to treat severe poisoning and it is not effective for ingestion of strong acids, iron, boric acid, lithium, petroleum products, or alcohol overdoses.

Sorbitol is often added to activated charcoal in emergency situations, according to the National Poison Control Center, which improves the flavor of the charcoal. However, sorbitol is also a laxative and may cause severe diarrhea. Additionally, the charcoal flavor is said to taste terrible and patients often experience nausea and vomiting directly after taking it.

Most importantly, both the Poison Control Center and the Mayo Clinic, state that activated charcoal should only be taken when in correspondence with the Poison Control Center, a physician, or in the emergency room. There are very specific dosages, timing, and medication interactions that require professional experience.

There is sufficient research to support the use of activated charcoal for overdoses and poisoning, but only under the supervision of a professional.

2. Kidney function.

In one animal study, researchers found that supplanting with activated charcoal helped remove urinary toxins for those with Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). However, researchers suggest that more research is needed to make any conclusions about the human population. Another study looked into the effect of activated charcoal supplementation along with a low protein diet for patients with end-stage kidney disease. The study population of elderly patients (80+) had improved kidney function outcomes after 10 months of supplementation.

However, the National Kidney Foundation does not support supplementing with activated charcoal as the evidence to support the use of activated charcoal for kidney disease is weak. More research needs to be done before supplementing with activated charcoal to improve kidney function.

3. Teeth whitening.

Charcoal toothpastes have been anecdotally stated to decrease cavities and to have antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and oral detoxification properties.

However, in a 2017 review by the Journal of the American Dental Association, there was insufficient clinical and laboratory data to support the safety and efficacy of using charcoal-based toothpaste. They concluded there is a need for larger and better-designed studies to make such a claim, and encouraged dentistry professionals to use caution with their patients who wish to use charcoal products.

4. Reducing gas.

While there are claims that activated charcoal helps decrease gas, there are mixed results for studies regarding its impact on gas production. 

One study found that supplementation with activated charcoal and magnesium oxide may improve symptoms of indigestion such as abdominal bloating. However, there is insufficient evidence to support the consistent use of activated charcoal to decrease gas production.

So is it safe to use, outside of the hospital setting?

While it’s likely fine in smaller amounts, it’s important to keep in mind that activated charcoal’s binding effect is not specific to “toxins” and can excrete anything in the digestive tract, including vitamins and minerals.

Additionally, one study showed that activated charcoal may bind to certain medications and render them less effective

Just remember, your body already has natural detox methods in place –

No charcoal required. 

Adapted from the original post.

Rose Mattson, MS, RD is a private practice dietitian who runs a Salt Lake City-based nutrition practice, through which she sees clients both locally and virtually. Specializing in Intuitive Eating, sports nutrition, and digestive disorders, Rose’s mission is to help people find satisfaction and joy in eating all foods, without unnecessary restriction or deprivation. When she’s not working, you can find her outside in the mountains, at the local farmer’s market, or scoping out the most delicious meals in the area.

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