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Activated Charcoal Fad Seems Best At Removing Cash From Our Wallets

Proponents say that it has the ability to pull toxins from the body and improve symptoms of everything from anxiety, to tissue toxins, to flatulence.

09/15/2017 13:10 EDT | Updated 09/15/2017 13:12 EDT

And the wildly popular new health food comes from the summer camp fire pit: Charcoal. Should you be seeking out charcoal-laden ice cream/pizza/kale smoothies to improve your health?

Proponents say that it has the ability to pull toxins from the body and improve symptoms of everything from anxiety, to tissue toxins, to flatulence. That should be your first clue... name one other thing that can have such a broad impact. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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Here are the facts:

  • Activated charcoal doesn't really come from a random campfire. It is a carefully heated and then oxygenated wood substance, usually coconut fibre, that has a negative ionic charge.
  • This treatment also creates a huge surface area in each molecule, meaning it can bind to things many times its weight, shape and size, like liquids and multiple other substances.
  • It has been used as a "natural Immodium" to sop up liquid in the bowel and calm the cramps of diarrhea.
  • Activated charcoal has been used medically in overdose cases to absorb and remove actual, real toxins like drugs and heavy metals in accidental ingestion. If the emergency room can't get you to chuck it up, it will help you push it out.

That said, as a food additive in small, consistent doses, it seems to be best at removing cash from wallets.

Taking said charcoal willy nilly can interfere with some of the things you are taking to improve your health.

The key cons are:

  • Activated charcoal has only been studied in poisoning situations. There is no evidence tracing its efficacy in general health.
  • It does not bind well to alcohol, so as a "hangover cure" it falls short unless you have a heck of a lot of booze still in your gut when you take it. And even then, the truth is that this isn't when a hangover needs help; really, it's the next day when your liver is having a time with the toxic effects of shots et al.
  • And about those toxins... charcoal can't remove anything from tissues beyond the gut. It is really only active in the digestive tract. So once those "toxins" are in your tissues. Healthy living, weight loss and liver fitness are your best bets.
  • Taking said charcoal willy nilly can interfere with some of the things you are taking to improve your health. Medications and supplements being in the forefront but even some of the nutrients that your bowel is taking time to synthesize from the good foods that you are eating could be interfered with.

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There is one interesting exception that I found: The ability to absorb aflatoxins.

Aflatoxins are a byproduct of mould that grows on grain, nuts and feed. They can cause digestive upset, sure, but are, more importantly, implicated in liver cancer. The interesting bit of this for me is that the liver is your very own "activated charcoal" organ. Its entire job is to remove toxins, like for real. It then cleanses itself. Your liver needs you to eat well, avoid taking too much Tylenol/inhaling toxic cleaning products/alcohol/sugar/bad fats in order to do its job of cleaning up your waste.

Activated charcoal has been shown to be able to bind to aflatoxins and remove those from the digestive tract... of chickens... so we don't really know if that works in people's guts. It doesn't really matter anyway, because humans' primary exposure to aflatoxins is through reheated grains and older/mouldy nuts — although, sure, we are more impacted when we consume animals that have consumed affected feed. So maybe the next step in health foods is to check if your free-range, designer chicken has a range of access to the firepit.

Hmmm. Anybody want to start another business with me?

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