Detox diehards are touting activated charcoal supplements as the latest all-natural way to rid the body of toxic baddies. But don’t expect to get a ringing endorsement from Abby Langer, a registered dietitian based in Toronto. “As far as benefits, I really see none,” says Langer. Holistic nutritionist Joy McCarthy is similarly unimpressed. “[I]t’s not a supplement that should be taken regularly. I would never recommend it to a client.”
Charcoal does have a significant role to play in preserving human health, though. It’s absorptive quality draws toxins like a magnet, which makes it a go-to in emergency situations such as poisonings and overdoses. “Activated charcoal is typically given within one hour of poisoning. It absorbs poisons from the GI tract, therefore preventing the toxins from being absorbed by the body,” explains Langer. In some cases it’s also used for the treatment of intestinal gas, and as a means of lowering cholesterol and preventing hangover, though many argue there’s no evidence to suggest it’ll help after a night of drinking.
It’s charcoal’s nifty ability to extract toxins that has health and beauty purveyors excited about its “detox” potential. Hence the rising popularity of charcoal-infused supplements, beauty products and even smoothies. A face mask that contains charcoal may be harmless, but Langer is wary of the purported benefits of ingestion. “The risks of taking activated charcoal for anything else besides poisoning far outweigh the benefits. If you take too much, you risk intestinal blockages. If you take a regular dose, it can still cause vomiting, diarrhea or constipation.” If you’re on any medications such as antidepressants it can also reduce their absorption and efficacy, she adds.
And as for the ubiquitous marketing surrounding the importance of “detoxing” the body—a cultural phenomenon that has healthy people doing everything from colonics to ingesting clay—Langer is clear: “The whole concept is faulty. Even if you have an exceptionally poor diet, if your liver and kidneys are functioning properly, there are really no toxins in the body that require removal beyond normal bodily functions.”