Black is Back!
The Health Benefits of Activated Charcoal
The latest trend in food is black. Magazines and blogs are splashed with black pizza crusts, lemonades, ice cream, breads and smoothies. Black food is showing up in every corner. But it’s not just food; the trend is pushing to health products, cosmetics, beauty products and even oral health products and for once, the colour trend is not merely cute or playful, but healthy.
Unlike previous colour trends, the source of “black” is not artificial dyes; it’s a natural compound called activated charcoal. Activated charcoal can actually improve your health while adding a splash of black. You may not have heard of activated charcoal but it has been around (and used both medicinally and in industry) for centuries.
Activated charcoal is nothing like the charcoal blocks used in BBQs before propane became so popular. Activated charcoal (also called activated carbon) is a form of carbon that is usually made from coal, various woods, grasses, bamboo or coconut shells. It becomes activated when, during production, it is treated with high heat and gas. The treatment results in a change in structure creating a highly porous material. The tiny holes that form give activated charcoal a surface area thousands of times greater than its apparent size. These holes and increased surface area enable activated charcoal to absorb a wide range of toxins and odours. When taken internally (powder, capsule, drink or tablet form) toxins and chemicals in the gut are trapped, preventing their absorption into the body. The charcoal's porous texture has a negative electrical charge, enabling it to attract and trap positively charged molecules, such as toxins and gases in the gut. Because activated charcoal is not absorbed by your body and expelled, it carries these trapped toxins out of your body as it is expelled in your feces.
Because of this toxin-binding property, doctors have used activated charcoal as an emergency poison treatment for over 200 years. They found that activated charcoal was effective (to some extent) in binding a wide variety of drugs, thus reducing their effects. It has been used to treat some prescription drug overdoses, as well as overdoses of over-the-counter medications like aspirin, acetaminophen and sedatives. In the United States, poison centres recommended activated charcoal over 50,000 times in 2013 alone. Studies show that when a single dose of 50–100 grams of activated charcoal is taken within five minutes of drug ingestion, for some drugs it can reduce absorption in adults by up to 74%. Caution must be taken when relying on activated charcoal for poisoning as it only effective with select drugs and completely ineffective with many more.
A note of caution when using activated charcoal internally. Ensure you are drinking adequate amounts of water. Water is needed to keep the activated charcoal moving and flushing itself and the trapped toxins out of your system.
Kidney support & detoxification
Your kidneys are amazing machines that work to keep your blood clean. They work cleaning approximately 110 litres of blood daily, filtering out waste and toxins producing urine. Additionally, they maintain proper electrolyte balance and regulate blood pressure. Properly functioning healthy kidneys are equipped to filter most toxins and waste from your blood without any additional help. However, as you are exposed to an ever increasing array of toxins in higher and higher levels, your kidneys may become stressed causing difficulty in removing urea and other toxins from the body.
Activated charcoal can help assist the kidneys by reducing the number of waste products that the kidneys have to filter. Activated charcoal can bind to urea and other toxins in the gut, helping your body eliminate them without stressing your kidneys. Urea and other waste products can pass from the bloodstream into the gut. In the gut, they become bound to activated charcoal and excreted together in the feces, not the urine. As well, clinical trials have shown activated charcoal actively helps improve kidney function.
Liver support & detoxification
Your liver is one of your vital organs. It cleans your blood, removing foreign toxins and waste from biological processes. It produces bile, the liquid which helps you break down fats and digest the fats from food and supplements. Additionally, it stores a simple sugar called glucose, which provides quick energy when you need it. Keeping your liver healthy is (in most cases) about avoiding unhealthy habits. Because your liver removes and stores toxins, the more toxins you take in, the harder it is on your liver. Activated charcoal helps your liver by trapping multiple toxins from your digestive tract, letting your body expel them. They never get to your blood or liver, easing the burden on your liver.
Be aware that one of the primary toxins that cause liver issues is alcohol. Contrary to popular belief (and many marketers) activated charcoal does not trap or help to detoxify alcohol. Alcohol’s chemical structure is incompatible with activated charcoal. So even if you take large amounts of activated charcoal when you go on a bender, you will still be harming your liver (and the rest of your body).
Activated charcoal can improve your cholesterol profile. Two of the substances that activated charcoal attracts and traps are cholesterol and cholesterol-containing bile acids in the gut. Once trapped, these compounds are excreted from your gut before your body can absorb them. The amount of activated charcoal used in the studies is quite high (4-32 g). Taking these levels daily helped reduce total and "bad" LDL cholesterol by 29–41% in those with high cholesterol levels while improving healthy cholesterol levels.
Activated charcoal attracts and traps many of the toxins found in fats. These toxins are released into your digestive tract as the fats are broken down and digested. These toxins can cause irritation, bloating, gas, ulcers and aggravate Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), acid reflux and traveller’s diarrhoea. By trapping these toxins, activated charcoal removes them from the digestive process, easing the burden on your digestive and elimination systems. This makes digestion easier and more efficient. It is particularly effective at reducing gas and bloating.
Activated charcoal is a tasteless centuries old versatile natural remedy. Its appeal is based on its multiple health benefits and exceptional safety. Because of this you can find activated charcoal added to many supplements to improve their efficacy, including those for cholesterol control, kidney health, liver health, detoxification and general daily health. Go ahead and embrace the black and enjoy the health benefits.
Joel Thuna, MH, is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience. Dr. Claude Gallant holds a PhD in Microbiology.