Activated Charcoal: helpful or hype?
What’s up with the goth latte? The other day we were out in the rapidly-getting-cooler Fulton Market, and stepped into a new and well-designed high tech coffee house, The Limitless Coffee and Tea Company. A charming place with really good coffee and excellent lighting, totally worth the time. While we were enjoying our pour-over, one couldn’t help but notice that at least a dozen other patrons had drinks of a very stark black and white foam on their drinks. Charcoal lattes.
The activated charcoal latte is a part of a new trend in popular ‘natural’ alternative food trends. Widely used for ‘detox and purification’, and health effects ranging from tooth whitening and proof against hangover to lowering cholesterol. Activated charcoal has been increasing in popularity lately as an added selling point and (usually self-prescribed) supplement, showing up infused into pizza crust, hamburger buns and even in ice cream, as well as beauty products. But what is it? Is it safe, how does it work?
What is it? We think of charcoal first for our Weber grill at a summer cook out. Wood treated with heat to make it a better, more consistent fuel. Activated charcoal is not the same stuff we cook with. Activated charcoal (AC) is made in a similar process, except that the source material can be any number of substances. Some are organic, like coconut shells, burnt peat, charred bones or olive pits. Others are mineral, like coal or petroleum coke. The source material is not be as relevant to the action as many claims would have you believe, since making it removes any biochemical action of the original substance.
The science. Activated charcoal works because of a simple action called adsorption, not to be confused with absorption. It attracts and bind up ions, especially ones with a positive charge, so that they cannot be absorbed and get carried out with the stool. In ABsorption, the liquid infuses the substance (think water in a sponge), in ADsorption, an electrochemical bond is formed. This is what gives charcoal its potency.
One of the biggest effects an adsorptive material is in the realm of the micro flora. Our biota, good and bad, produce a lot of chemistry, good and bad, and the charcoal can adsorb some pretty hefty toxins. Charcoal has even been shown to bind up some types of E-coli.
Standard Medical Use The medical use for activated charcoal is emergency treatment of substance poisoning and drug overdose, but it doesn’t work for everything. Things with a positive charge, like aspirin, sedatives or acetaminophen are the best use. Things with a negative charge, like alcohol, potassium, iron, lithium, some heavy metals, and acid or alkaline substances do not adsorb well. So you need to know what the poison is. Of course, don’t try to treat poisoning or overdose at home--go to the ER.
On overall safety. Despite some safety concerns, activated charcoal is generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the FDA, Caution should be used with people who have reduced bowel function, are constipated, or have otherwise compromised bowel function. People on medications for constipation should avoid charcoal. Activated charcoal will interfere with the absorption of theophylline, digoxin, tricyclic antidepressants and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
So that’s the science of it, now what’s about the marketing claims—helpful or hype? Here’s a rundown:
Skin Care and deodorants—Helpful. The activated charcoal would adsorb bacteria and micro particular dirt and chemicals. Adsorption is particularly good at absorbing odor producing chemicals and is an ingredient in many natural deodorants.
Wound healing—Helpful. Some types of bandages contain activated charcoal, as do many traditional first aid remedies. There is some antimicrobial effect and charcoal/silver nitrate dressings are most commonly used to treat bedsores (which can have a bad odor).
Reducing gas and bloating or treating diarrhea—Helpful for short-term. The OTC Gas-X is a blend of the drug simethicone, magnesium oxide and activated charcoal with proven efficacy against a feeling of gas, bloating and fullness. It seems to be from the combination of ingredients, with no data supporting charcoal alone causing the effect. While it considered to be an effective anti-diarrheal treatment, it is generally considered to have unnecessary side effects (and takes a large dosage) when compared to other meds, like Immodium. AC will adsorb hydrogen sulfide and is therefore useful to mask rotten egg smelling flatulence, but probably better to fix the cause of that issue than to mask the symptom.
Detox—Helpful for short term. Charcoal can be used to adsorb and safely remove toxins that have been excreted to the gut by the liver. When combined with appropriate dietary fiber and liver supporting herbs, charcoal can be an effective addition to a nutritional detox program for short periods of time (up to a few weeks).
Reducing cholesterol—Maybe helpful. It does bond bile salts and free cholesterol in the gut, in theory preventing reabsorption and stimulating the liver to reduce more cholesterol. But in practice, study results are mixed and inconclusive.
Whitening Teeth—Mostly Hyped. There are many products that use charcoal as an ingredient as well as powered charcoal that you can dip your brush in. While better than not brushing your teeth at all, there is no evidence that the charcoal has much benefit. It is speculated that the adsorption works on plaque and bacterial by-products on the teeth. Charcoal products that make claims of being antiviral, antibacterial or antifungal are doing so without evidence.
Preventing hangovers—Hyped. Given that adsorbtion has no effect on alcohol, this one is probably more myth used on peers to encourage over consumption of spirits. There is no evidence supporting the claim that AC is good for preventing a hangover. The best cure for a hangover is to not over consume alcohol.
And the charcoal lattes, ice cream or other foods and drinks? It is a safe addition to a pricy, pretentious, artisan coffee drink, if it’s not a regular habit, but you are probably not getting too much of a benefit if that is the extent of your detox program. I recommend AC for more occasional use, as it interferes with too many normal processes. For more on detoxing, come see us at the clinic and we can design a plan that works best for you.