Four Effects of Activated Charcoal That Should Make You Second Guess the Dramatic Food Trend

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Proponents of adding activated charcoal to foods and drinks say that the ingredient aids in detoxification, helps avoid hangovers, leads to optimal digestion, and promotes anti-aging effects.

None of the purported health benefits of activated charcoal are backed by medical research. Beneficial uses beyond managing poisoning or overdose are strictly anecdotal.

Charcoal-laden treats--which now include ice cream, cocktails, cookies and cakes, smoothies, juices, waffles, charcoal lattes, and pizza--make for dramatic social media photo ops, but they can cause serious side effects and interfere with medications and supplements. Prolonged ingestion can even lead to malnutrition and dangerous gastrointestinal problems.

Consuming an activated charcoal product every now and then will likely not be hazardous to one's health, but consuming them frequently, especially in addition to taking activated charcoal supplements, could lead to numerous health complications.


Here are the top risks of consuming activated charcoal:


1) Activated Charcoal Deprives the Body of Nutrients


Activated charcoal is not picky. It may absorb "toxic" particles, but even in very low doses it also bonds vitamin C, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B1, biotin, and so on. In short, activated charcoal makes a food or drink less nutritious by causing malabsorption of nutrients.

Prolonged use of activated charcoal as a food or drink ingredient could lead to malnutrition. Signs of malnutrition include dry eyes, sparse and brittle hair, alopecia, weakened immune system, increased susceptibility to illness, muscle wasting, premature wrinkling of the skin, memory and concentration problems, mood swings, and fatigue.

2) Activated Charcoal Can Make Medicine and Birth Control Pills Ineffective 


"Activated charcoal is given to people who take too much medication because charcoal is so absorbent and can counteract an overdose,” Dr. Patricia Raymond, a gastroenterologist in Virginia Beach, told Women's Health. "But if you're drinking it and you also are on any meds, even birth control pills, the charcoal is likely to absorb the drugs. So you risk having them become ineffective."

Activated charcoal is thought to weaken the effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications, including pain medication, cholesterol-reducing drugs, gastrointestinal remedies, and antibiotics.

Some popular alternative health websites recommend that cancer patients take activated charcoal to reduce side effects of chemotherapy drugs. They base their claims on preliminary studies that do not appear to have been replicated. The argument can be made that taking activated charcoal may reduce the benefits of chemo medication. And indeed, most cancer patients are instructed to cease taking supplements during chemotherapy to avoid any interference with the chemo drugs.

Image: Toa Heftiba

3) Activated Charcoal Can Cause Gastrointestinal Problems


Consuming activated charcoal can cause vomiting and bowel obstruction (aka intestinal blockage). The bowel obstruction could be the result of dry lumps of fecal matter becoming impacted over time.

Some have even reported experiencing intestinal perforation as a result of receiving activated charcoal. This dangerous side effect is rare and typically seen in those with inflammatory bowel disease.

Diarrhea and constipation are common side effects of activated charcoal use, and may result from electrolyte imbalance. Electrolyte imbalance can lead to hypernatremia and hypermagnesemia.

Hypernatremia is defined as high sodium content in the blood. Symptoms of hypernatremia include muscle spasms, loss of appetite, excessive thirst, brain cell shrinkage, and confusion. Severe hypernatremia can result in bleeding in the brain, seizures, and coma.

Hypermagnesemia is defined as high magnesium content in the blood. Symptoms of hypermagnesemia include low blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythm, dizziness, fatigue, and kidney problems.

4) Activated Charcoal Can Cause Respiratory Distress


Many individuals who consume activated charcoal experience vomiting as a side effect. Some of the vomited material may enter the lungs and lead to bronchial inflammation and obstruction. Fine charcoal powder added to drinks and food may be accidentally inhaled, which could lead to acute respiratory distress.

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In sum, if you are curious and would like to try some of the trendy all-black, activated charcoal foods and drinks, feel free to do so. But avoid making activated charcoal a frequent component of your diet or supplement regimen.

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