Activated Charcoal – Black Gold or Fool’s Gold?

Published on May 16, 2018 by Taz Janeen

Activated Charcoal is everywhere! From raw juice, to ice cream, lattes, burgers, waffles, toothpaste, shampoo, and beyond–it really is the new “black ink” sensation. That said, how many of us actually know what it does and whether or not it is safe for long term use?

Because it’s a pigment not easily found in food–let alone nature, I feel the fascination stems from the fact it’s jet black and just plain fun. It harkens to the depths of the seas where long lived tales of ink filled creatures reside. Furthermore, while it has documented use in treating acute poisoning, it appears that many current uses are inferred, rather than confirmed accurately via empirical method. As a result, Activated Charcoal has literally taken hold of the whole food nutrition industry like the giant arms of an octopus. This is extremely concerning, seeing the strong evidence associated with it is based on acute poisonings, and not true detoxification per se. So, what exactly is the difference? Isn’t removing poison from the body a major aspect of detoxification? The simple answer is yes, but unfortunately detoxification is not that simple. Therefore, we need to delve deeper into the process itself.

Detoxification is a systematic process, wherein the liver–our master organ is mostly involved. This process is broken down into two parts: Phase I and Phase II. Phase I requires the use of substances such as B vitamins, along with a special group of enzymes classed under the umbrella Cytochrome P450. This combination of enzymes and nutrients breaks down hazardous substances and biochemical waste products. They then enter Phase II detoxification where they undergo a process known as biotransformation which renders the substances much less effective and converts them into water soluble compounds. This ensures the altered substances can easily be carried to organs of elimination for the final stage in removal. Because both steps/phases in the detoxification process are required to effectively remove hazardous substances, any substance deemed truly “detoxifying” must be involved in either one of the aforementioned phases.

Unfortunately, in the case of Activated Charcoal, there is no evidence suggesting that it partakes in either one. However, the reason it has clinical application in the “decontamination” of poisons is because it has an extremely high absorptive capacity. This is due to the fact it is highly porous, allowing it to act like a “super sponge” and effectively mop up hazardous substances; thus, offering rapid elimination of a poison, but not true detoxification. Furthermore, clinical use in hospitals is limited because extremely high does (50g or higher) are required within an hour of exposure. Interestingly, it seems to only work successfully as a decontaminant with very specific toxins. It doesn’t effectively absorb anything that is a highly acidic or basic; therefore, confirming that its acute detoxifying capacity is limited.

Another concern regarding Activated Charcoal is that it may interfere with the absorption of drugs, herbs, vitamins, and certain foods. It could potentially interact with them as well. That said, how effective is that milk thistle infused “black” detox lemonade you like to drink? Furthermore, what is the point of replenishing lost electrolytes with “black” lemonade if your mineral content may be depleted by the Activated Charcoal itself? Upon critical investigation, it becomes clear that this “black gold” phenomenon isn’t all that it’s chalked up to be. So, what should it be used for and how should one go about it?

Although it’s used in a clinical setting for acute poisoning, this scenario or anything similar should always be addressed in the emergency room and never at home.

Interestingly, one of the main applications of Activated Charcoal is in water purification because of its high absorptive capacity. As a filter, it can “suck” up unwanted particles and neutralize odours effectively, so there just may be something to charcoal water filter sticks after all. Its odour-neutralizing ability doesn’t just stop there either; it has been used in medical dressings to neutralize the odour that accompanies infected wounds!

There’s also a lot of buzz about Activated Charcoal being an oral hygiene miracle. Again, there is no evidence that it reduces dental caries. Coincidentally, the studies that have been conducted show that it might actually increase caries due to enamel breakdown because it’s too abrasive. However, because we know it’s a powerful absorbing agent, its use as a tooth whitener might not be so far from the tree. In theory, a paste could be applied to the teeth and left for a few minutes, then rinsed and discarded. One could consider using it as a face mask to pull impurities, as a possible deodorant, and it might actually be effective if added to shampoo because it can help mop up excess oil. That being said, always use a patch test to ensure there is no allergic reaction.

Now, I’m not stating that Activated Charcoal be entirely eradicated from your diet. It really is a fun pigment! I’m just suggesting that it’s consumed intelligently, with context, not because everyone is telling you take it. The purpose of our education platforms is to ensure that you–the consumer, is informed and can make a sound decision about your health. So, the next time you want to take a swig of charcoal lemonade or devour black ice cream, just be mindful what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Simply put, do it in moderation and be aware of the impacts it will have when consumed. If you’re on prescription drugs, it may be wise to avoid it altogether. Also, be sure to increase your minerals the days you do partake in the “black ink” sensation. For those who are looking to reap the benefits of true detoxification, get back to the basics. Increase water intake, eat whole living foods, cut out the dead junk, get moving and use nutrients that support Phase I and II detoxification pathways.

 

References:

Gude, Anne-Bolette Jill, et al. “Dose-Dependent Adsorptive Capacity of Activated Charcoal for Gastrointestinal Decontamination of a Simulated Paracetamol Overdose in Human Volunteers.” Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, vol. 106, no. 5, July 2009, pp. 406–410., doi:10.1111/j.1742-7843.2009.00503.x. 

Otowa, T., et al. “Development of KOH Activated High Surface Area Carbon and Its Application to Drinking Water Purification.” Carbon, vol. 35, no. 9, 1997, pp. 1315–1319., doi:10.1016/s0008-6223(97)00076-6.

Brooks, John K., et al. “Charcoal and Charcoal-Based Dentifrices.” The Journal of the American Dental Association, vol. 148, no. 9, 2017, pp. 661–670., doi:10.1016/j.adaj.2017.05.001. 

“Activated Charcoal: Bottom Line Monograph.” Natural Medicine Journal, www.naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2013-08/activated-charcoal-bottom-line-monograph.