Are There Benefits From Drinking Charcoal?
I was wrong. I guessed that fermented mango rind would be the next pseudo-science superfood. It’s just a matter of putting three words together and making something up. That’s basically the same formula supplement sales companies use. But an email from Dave Asprey of Bulletproof caught me off guard. The Next Big Thing is charcoal. And not just the briquettes you buy at Ace Hardware for a few bucks a bag. Nutrition grade activated coconut charcoal. It’s got to be good, right? It’s made from coconut! Since getting the email from Bulletproof urging me to act immediately before the stock runs dry, I’ve seen several other purveyors of questionable goods hop on the bandwagon.
Activated charcoal is charcoal that has been crushed and heated to expand and create a very large surface area. Sorry but it’s no more exciting than that. Charcoal does have a couple unique qualities. Qualities that have made it the go-to of last resort for poison control centers and radiation health physicists for a century. It is full of holes like a microscopic piece of Swiss cheese. It is also electrically charged so it acts like a sweater with static electricity: things tend to stick to it. It has proven useful especially for those times when people ingest radioactive material. The porosity and electrical charge act to glom onto the material and help it pass through the body. If this describes you and you are doing a Google search to self-medicate I urge you to get to the nearest hospital and quickly as you can. And please call then to warn them first.
But there’s research! And it’s lean and mostly lousy.
Asprey’s Bulletproof site has a short paper with references outlining the benefits of charcoal. But the references are old – up to forty years – and are marginally applicable. There is nothing wrong with forty-year-old research as long as it applies to the topic and has been vetted with newer or more robust research. But there is very little research regarding ingestion of charcoal. Most researchers never imagined that pill hucksters would sell the stuff as a health supplement. Charcoal is medically used to lessen the effects of poisoning and ingesting radioactive materials. In those cases, it is taken as a liquid at a rate of five times the volume of charcoal to the volume of poison ingested. Common dosages on the pseudo-science nutrition pages are right around 25-100 grams for adults. Keep in mind that 100 grams equals about a quarter pound. In this case, you need three to four charcoal briquettes to get your dose.
Charcoal for your kids?
I see, too, that several sites list dosages for children. My first thought is that people who feed their children charcoal need a stern visit by the folks at Children Services. Dave Asprey, on his sales page for charcoal provides this nugget:
When my young kids (4 and 6 years old) suddenly drop into uncharacteristic fits of whining or tantrums, especially after snacks at a friend’s house, activated charcoal brings them back to normal within about 10 minutes. It is amazing to watch.
This bothers me on several levels. Asprey claims that he’s neither a scientist nor a nutritionist but just a guy trying things out and reporting on what works for him. But he obviously feels qualified to dope his children with charcoal. As for his kid’s behavior? If true, then my guess is that doping them with chemicals when they act like children scares the crap out of them so they shape up.
How does charcoal work when given for poison detox? As stated above, a drink is administered that contains charcoal at an approximate ratio of 5 parts charcoal to 1 part poison. It will absorb anything as it flows through your stomach and into the intestines. Not just toxins but nutrients as well. It can cause intestinal blockage and is often administered with a laxative so that it doesn’t linger in your intestine. It can cause vomiting which, if used for poison relief, is fine. Doctors just want the poisons out and they’re not concerned about which end that happens at. For personal use, I’m not sure which sounds worse: black stools or black vomit. Please note that ingesting charcoal will do nothing for anything outside of your digestive tract. It will not clear ‘brain fog’, will not chelate metals, and will not bind serum cholesterol. Really. Just get healthy, eat healthily, and let your body do its work. It’s a wonderful machine.
I’d like to parse this passage from Asprey’s site:
Toxins from low quality, processed food, and environmental pollution are real problems.
I’m not sure what he is referring to other than environmental toxins but, yes, toxins, are problematic by definition. Toxins are defined as poisons which are defined as things that harm an organism. So, yes. Things that harm an organism are bad for that organism. Natch.
It is important to help your body eliminate them to promote a healthy digestive system and brain. Chronic exposure to toxins produces cellular damage, allergic reactions, compromised immunity, and more rapid aging. Regular use of activated charcoal can remove unwanted toxins from your body, leaving you feeling renewed and more vibrant, often in minutes!
This is absolute garbage. When you ingest charcoal, it goes straight through your digestive system. Immune cells, toxins, and ‘Cellular damage’ all happen outside of the digestive tract. Charcoal has no effect on anything outside of your digestive tract.
Gut toxins quickly become brain toxins if you don’t eliminate them. Whether or not you are feeling under the weather, activated charcoal helps unwanted bacteria move through your system faster before they spread and multiply, helping you feel better faster.
This is true though our body does a wonderful job of cleaning up on its own. Do be aware, though, that charcoal can’t discriminate between good and bad. As it is sweeping unwanted bacteria from your system it is just as certainly sweeping much, much more of your healthy microbiome with it.
It’s a Silly and Possibly Harmful Scam
The scant research leads to the conclusion that, like most non-nutritive stuff people shove down their throat, activated charcoal is harmless and ineffective at anything other than making your teeth and stools black. One study (paywall) indicates a statistical decrease in key nutrients in apple juice when mixed with activated charcoal but I don’t see that this has any frightening application. The amounts used aren’t enough to cause any nutritive imbalance. Poison controls centers urge that you contact them first prior to self-medicating with briquettes.
So are there benefits from drinking charcoal? Only if you are poisoned. And if you’re drinking charcoal please do it under a doctor’s care. It’s a waste of your time and money it you do it for any other purpose. If you really want to improve your life with carbon then invest in diamonds. You get a much better return on investment. This is what the people selling this stuff are doing.
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