If you’ve come across little black bottles of detox drinks over the last 12 months, no you are not imagining things. Charcoal drinks really are a ‘thing’ in health circles. But, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll also know that just because something is popular with health fans doesn’t mean it actually works. Here’s the science-backed scoop on activated charcoal drinks.
What is it?
Activated charcoal is made from coconut shells, wood or peat that have been heated to very high temperatures in the presence of certain gases. It’s a process that introduces lots of holes onto the surface of each piece of coal and this ‘activates’ it. Activated charcoal has a much larger surface area than standard charcoal and this boosts its ability to bind to certain small particles.
The health claims?
- Activated charcoal can prevent a hangover
- It whitens teeth
- Activated charcoal is a great detox and cleansing remedy
- Taking activated charcoal will boost your health
The scientific facts?
- Despite the impressive health claims associated with activated charcoal, the only thing it is scientifically proven to do is bind to drugs like paracetamol if taken within an hour of ingesting the drug. That’s why activated charcoal is a staple treatment for paracetamol overdoses.
- The black substance’s large surface area allows it to bind to paracetamol while it’s still in the stomach, therefore reducing the amount of the drug that gets absorbed into the blood stream and distributed around the body.
- Activated charcoal does not bind to alcohol. Furthermore, as this study shows, alcohol is too quickly absorbed into the bloodstream for charcoal to have any effect on it. This means that taking a charcoal pill after or even during a boozy night out will NOT prevent or cure a hangover, so don’t waste your time or money.
- Similarly, eating or drinking activated charcoal will not renew the body by removing so-called toxins because charcoal particles are too big to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Activated charcoal is a fibre that goes straight to the gut before being passed out of the body. It has no magical detoxifying power that allows it to draw things out from blood.
- The idea that taking a daily dose of the black stuff optimises health is the biggest myth of them all. In fact, if taken within an hour or two of a meal, activated charcoal may bind to and reduce the absorption of some nutrients in your food. This means that the very thing you’re drinking to make you healthy could actually be stealing health-boosting vitamins and minerals from your diet.
- Finally, we’ve found out first hand that adding a little charcoal to your toothpaste does seem to make teeth feel squeaky clean. However, dentists warn that doing this may actually wear down tooth enamel because activated charcoal is quite gritty.
Nutritional facts – Activated charcoal versus psyllium husk
Activated charcoal is really just a highly absorbent fibre, just like the natural colon cleanser psyllium husk. Here’s how both compare in terms of ‘detoxifying properties’:
- Soluble fibre: Activated charcoal 0% v psyllium husk 55%
- Insoluble fibre: Activated charcoal 100% v psyllium husk 45%
- Vitamins, minerals and miscellaneous nutrients: Activated charcoal contains no minerals and psyllium husk provides modest amounts of calcium and iron.
Winner: Psyllium husk. Activated charcoal solely consists of insoluble fibre – a fibre that doesn’t dissolve in water. This type of fibre stays in the gut and helps with bulking up your bowel contents, therefore treating constipation and wind. Because it is such a strong fibre, it can cause constipation when you first start taking it. In contrast, the soluble fibre in psyllium husk not only helps with bowel movements, it has also been shown to lower cholesterol, which means that psyllium husks offer a gentle way to keep your bowels regular than activated charcoal, with the added bonus of reducing bad cholesterol. And it’s a source of calcium.
Worth the hype?
Are you crazy?! No!
Activated charcoal may actually damage your health by interfering with the absorption of prescription medication and food nutrients. To add insult to injury, many of the detox drink companies trying to convince you that you NEED their charcoal drinks in your life also slap a hefty price tag onto these drinks – they do look pretty fancy after all! Save yourself money by staying away from any charcoal-containing detox drink that promises you a new lease of life. It’s 100% BS.