The trend of charcoal everything—lemonade! lattes! soft serve!—for supposed detox benefits might sound like it has science on its side, but it’s actually a pretty bad idea.
For the uninitiated, activated charcoal isn’t the stuff in your BBQ, and you won’t find it in any naturally occurring foods either. It’s a byproduct you get after burning coconut shells and other plant-based materials. Scientifically speaking, activated charcoal has a negative charge, which, if you were listening during high school chemistry class, means it can bind to positively-charged ions.
It’s for that reason that activated charcoal is often used in ERs to counteract drug overdoses. It clings to some medications and, if administered within a certain timeframe, can prevent those medications from doing damage by quickly removing them from the body. In theory, you could call that a “detox”—and many alternative health practitioners have taken that idea and run with it—but it doesn’t translate quite like that to people who aren’t suffering from an overdose. The idea of using activated charcoal to flush out ‘toxins’ from your body is pure B.S. It just doesn’t work that way. I always find it funny when I ask people which ‘toxins’ they want to rid their body of—they can’t really answer. Your body actually does a great job of removing waste products on its own. If you have working kidneys and a liver, you’re fine—that’s their purpose!
So I’m not exaggerating when I say I’m legit alarmed when I see someone walking down the street drinking a charcoal lemonade or a goth latte or… oh dear, someone even made charcoal beer. Here’s a recent Instagram round-up of the charcoal craze:
Sure, charcoal looks pretty. But it can actually be harmful to your health. Here’s how.
It can interfere with your birth control and other medications
The very same reason why charcoal is used in poisonings—to absorb huge doses of medications—can also be the reason why it’s not safe in everyday life, because it can affect how your prescribed meds work. That means antidepressants, birth control and asthma medications can be thrown into whack by your charcoal lemonade habit. You’re prescribed a certain dose for a reason; if you’re ingesting charcoal on the reg your medications may not be working at full capacity.
It can go down the wrong way
published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, and it details a case of a 34-year-old woman who accidentally aspirated charcoal (meaning, it went down her airway instead of her stomach). The pictures of the inside of her lungs are frightening. Granted, she wasn’t drinking charcoal lemonade, she was given activated charcoal in an ER because of a suspected overdose. Still, the article notes where there is a risk of aspirating charcoal, doctors should avoid administering it. Why? Unlike water, which is mostly safe to aspirate (though we all know that uncomfortable that is), aspirating charcoal will buy you an all-inclusive stay in the ICU with potential lung damage. It’s rare, but should be enough to make you think twice about chugging it.
It can cause electrolyte imbalances
Turns out your body isn’t really into the charcoal trend, either. Even though charcoal is touted by some alternative health professionals, naturopaths and holistic nutritionists as helpful for bloating and gastrointestinal issues, this has never been proven, and in fact, the opposite may occur. When you eat or drink charcoal, it can cause side effects like diarrhea, constipation and even intestinal blockages (especially if you subscribe to the school of “more is always better”—it’s not). In these instances, you risk losing quite a bit of fluid, which in turn can cause electrolyte imbalance. This sounds innocuous enough, but in extreme cases, it can mess with your heart rhythms. Scary.
Bottom line: Don’t believe the hype
Aside from the fact that your liver and kidneys already do a great job of removing toxins from your bod, eating or drinking charcoal can be detrimental to your actual health. Please stop believing the hype that your body needs help flushing toxins—it doesn’t—and don’t take unregulated supplements or waste your money on charcoal-based drinks and foods.