The Next Big Thing! Activated Charcoal. Save your money.

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton
Have lemon with your briquette?
Have lemon with your briquette?

I was wrong. In my last post about science-based nutrition I guessed that fermented mango rind would be the next pseudo-science superfood.  It was just a matter of putting three words together and making something up. That’s basically the same formula supplement sales companies use. But an email from Dave Asprey – Bulletproof salesman extraordinaire – caught me off guard. The Next Big Thing is charcoal. And not just charcoal – you can by that at Ace Hardware for a few bucks a bag. Nutrition grade activated charcoal. Since getting the email from Bulletproof urging me to act now before the stock runs dry I’ve seen several other purveyors of questionable goods hop on the band wagon.

Activated charcoal is charcoal that has been crushed and heated to expand and create a very large surface area. Sorry but it’s no more exciting than that. Charcoal does have a couple unique qualities. Qualities that have made it the go-to of last resort for poison control centers and radiation health physicists for a century. It is full of holes like a microscopic piece of Swiss cheese and it is ionic which means that it is electrically charged. Being charged means that it acts something like a sweater with static electricity – other things, toxic chemical putatively, that are charged will bind to it.

charcoalThe Bulletproof site has a short paper with references outlining the benefits of charcoal. But the references are old – up to forty years – and are marginally applicable. There is nothing wrong with forty year-old research as long as it applies and has been vetted with newer or more robust research. But there is very little research regarding ingestion of charcoal as most people never imagined that pill hucksters would sell the stuff as a health supplement. Charcoal is used to lessen the effects of poisoning and ingesting radioactive materials. In those cases it is taken as a liquid at a rate of five times charcoal to the volume of poison ingested. Common dosages on the pseudo-science nutrition pages are right around 25-100 grams for adults. Keep in mind that a 100 grams equals about a quarter pound of charcoal. That is an amazing – amazingly bad judgment – three to four charcoal briquettes. I see, too, that several sites list dosages for children. Dave Aspery, on his sales page for charcoal provides this nugget:

When my young kids (4 and 6 years old) suddenly drop into uncharacteristic fits of whining or tantrums, especially after snacks at a friend’s house, activated charcoal brings them back to normal within about 10 minutes. It is amazing to watch.

This frankly bothers me on several levels. Asprey claims that he’s neither a scientist nor a nutritionist but just a guy trying things out and reporting on what works for him. He certainly makes a strong argument for the former here. As for his kids behavior? If true then my guess is that doping them with chemicals when they act like children scares the crap out of them so they shape up.

How does charcoal work when given for poison ingestion? As stated above you would be administered a drink that contains charcoal at an approximate ratio of 5 parts charcoal to 1 part poison. It will absorb anything as it flows through your stomach and into the intestines. Not just toxins but nutrients as well. It can cause intestinal blockage and is often administered with a laxative so that it doesn’t linger in your intestine. It can cause vomiting which, if used for poison relief, is fine. Doctors just want the poisons out and they’re not too concerned about which end it happens. For personal use I’m not sure which sounds worse: black stools or black vomit. Please note that ingesting charcoal will do nothing for anything outside of your digestive tract. It will not clear ‘brain fog’, will not chelate metals, and will not bind serum cholesterol. Really. Just get healthy, eat healthy and let your body do its work. It’s a wonderful machine.

Or you can save your money and just be healthy?
Or you can save your money and just be healthy?

In reading the scant research my opinion is that, like most shilled non-nutritive stuff people shove down their throat, activated charcoal is harmless and ineffective at anything other than making your stools black.  One study indicates a statistical decrease in key nutrients in apple juice when mixed with activated charcoal but I don’t see that this has any frightening application. The amounts used aren’t enough to cause any nutritive imbalance. Poison centers urge that you contact them first prior to self medicating with briquettes. And if you really want to improve your life with carbon then invest in diamonds.  You get a much better return on investment. This is what the people selling this stuff are doing.

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Author: Dennis Mitton

Science writer. Evolution, bio, health, fitness, longevity, and philosophy. Love Russian lit. Run a slow 5k. Proven breeder/twins. Monkey Dance author.

11 thoughts on “The Next Big Thing! Activated Charcoal. Save your money.”

  1. Hi Heather. I hate to put any blame on the users. And I often wonder just how much the salespeople believe their own stories. I don’t know how much charcoal you would need to invest to actually hurt yourself. Lots I think. The scant research says that the most likely contraindication is constipation though vomiting is common too. For the record I did a few goofy things thirty years ago too!

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  2. It’s hard to blame people when products are marketed as scientifically vetted nutrients. But you are right. We have a friend whose husband earned a trip to the ER after injecting himself with horse hormones for bigger muscles.

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  3. I remember about thirty years ago going through a short stage of having a couple of charcoal tablets a day. I can’t remember why I thought it might be a good idea, but I do remember I felt no different to normal, which I think is why I stopped after a few weeks. I think it was marketed as being good for your stomach – I had frequent nausea, and I hated my doctor of the time and didn’t want to go to him. I look back now and know it was stupid, but I was willing to try anything rather than see my GP.

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