What is activated charcoal

It is claimed that activated charcoal can extract impurities and bind them, preventing the body from absorbing them. But some have criticised it, saying that it not only extracts the unwanted toxins but also beneficial nutrients. Moneybags journalist Danielle Van Wyk explores asks if there are any benefits to detoxing with activated charcoal.

What is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal is made by burning sources of carbon such as wood debris or coconut shells. The temperature at which it is burnt removes all the oxygen from the substance and activates it with gases such as steam.

Common uses

The substance which is readily available in both tablet and powder form, “is commonly used to prevent the absorption of most poisons or toxins in the stomach and intestine by binding them or neutralising them.  If your body is at risk of being poisoned it can help combat this. It’s also great in the treatment of gas, bloating and removing fungal toxins and parasites,” states popular juice bar, Orchard on Long in Cape Town.

Because of its porous nature it is useful in many other ways, from water purification to clinical emergencies such as overdosing. Activated charcoal is then used to extract any harmful toxins or poisons.

It is also used in many natural medicine remedies. “We commonly use activated charcoal when making a poulstice, which is a paste made up of natural herbs and substances used incidents like infected wounds or snake bites,” says registered phytotherapist, Dr Charlene Pieterse.

But more recently people have cottoned onto it as a detoxing agent used for anything from a hangover cure to a full body cleansing aid.

While there is no known study indicating that regular use poses any health risks, there are potential downsides, particularly for women who are either pregnant, trying to fall pregnant or breastfeeding.

One of them include the possibility that it hampers the efficiency of pharmaceutical medication.

“It may decrease the effectiveness of the drugs as it doesn’t discern between pharmaceutical drugs, poisons or toxins. Effectiveness also largely depends on the dose administrated,” Orchard on Long adds.

It is also reportedly is not effective in treating cyanide, mineral acids, caustic alkalis, organic solvents, iron, ethanol and methanol poisoning.

It is in this vein that many have ridiculed the use of the substance long term.

“The problem with charcoal is that it’s non-specific. It’ll bind to anything it finds absorbable. That could include toxins as well as nutrients.

“In fact, you don’t actually want to get rid of all your body’s impurities. Remember that might include vitamins and amino acids and other things you actually need in your diet,” reports Time magazine.

“While activated charcoal is a good extractor, it should be used in conjunction with other natural herbs and substances to optimise its properties and the subsequent effects on the body. We should aim to not only clean but simultaneously strengthen our organs too,” states Pieterse.

It feels like every health and juice bar has seemingly incorporated activated charcoal into their menus and people are flocking to wellness stores and retail pharmacies like Dischem where it is sold for as little as R17.95.

“We are too quick to cotton on to these ‘quick fixes’. The fact remains that we live in a world where we are privy to all sorts of toxins and while cleansing is a necessary process, one should never ingest anything without doing proper research.

“Natural alternatives are also always encouraged, but even here the rule of thumb remains that you should never aim to extract without replenishing,” says Pieterse.

When it comes to being good to our bodies, the simple and natural ways prove best but no singular agent can do the necessary task, explains Pieterse.

“Detoxing whether it be with charcoal or other substances needs to go hand in hand with an overall healthy lifestyle for it to truly work,” she concludes.