ACTIVATED charcoal is the new black — for the most fashionably health-conscious anyway. Made from coal treated at high temperature (it’s not the stuff you use in your braai), the purified form of carbon has become widely touted as a miracle detoxifier, but does it live up to the hype?
The facts: Activated charcoal has a long history of medical use as an emergency treatment for accidental poisoning, and overdosing. The heat-processing makes the surface of the charcoal extremely porous, allowing it to bind with certain substances. By ingesting activated charcoal, poisons are soaked up and secured in the digestive tract before they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Because of this, timing is key and it is most effective within two hours after the incident has occurred.
The drawbacks: Charcoal is only active in the digestive tract and cannot draw toxins from the liver or other organs. It may soak up the nasty bits that it comes into direct contact with, but will not discriminate between these and those that might be useful for the body. One concern is that charcoal can prevent medications such as the contraceptive pill from being absorbed and reduce their efficacy. It is also presented as a remedy for intestinal gas and bloating. Like many digestive remedies, these offer symptomatic relief in acute cases, but may mask a more serious underlying condition long-term.
The fallacies: The internet is awash with grand claims about guzzling charcoal “slurries”— from preventing hangovers to ending body odour. The bad news is that one of the substances that charcoal is useless against is alcohol — so sorry, but the best preventative is still going to be moderation! As for body odour, this is a claim based on a trial that showed that charcoal is effective in reducing odour in wounds when applied topically, so unless you are planning on sooting up your armpits, this is probably more fiction than fact (until charcoal deodorants hit the market, anyway).
The verdict: Activated charcoal may be a sensible addition to a home first-aid kit, but there may be drawbacks to ingesting it on a regular basis. It may be useful as an occasional remedy for digestive discomfort, but any ongoing complaints should be seen to by a medical professional. If you are taking any medications, it would be wise to wait at least two hours after dosing before using charcoal. As for detoxification — the most sensible approach is always going to be lightening the toxic load on the body by eating more wholesome foods, and getting regular exercise.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Times Lifestyle Magazine