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

I’ve always guessed that most people know what good nutrition is. I no longer do.

Activated Charcoal

I was wrong. In my last post about science-based nutrition, I guessed that fermented mango rind would be the next pseudo-science superfood.  I simply put three words together made 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 buy that at Ace Hardware for a few bucks a bag – but 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 bandwagon.

Activated charcoal is charcoal that has been crushed and heated to expand. This creates tiny pockets and a very large surface area. Sorry but it’s no more exciting than that. Charcoal does have a couple unique 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. So, it sticks to everything like a sweater charged with static electricity. The tiny holes make for convenient places to store anything it sticks to.

Therapeutic Uses of Charcoal

The 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. Forty-year-old research is fine 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, 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 of ingesting radioactive materials. In those cases, it is taken as a liquid at a rate of five times charcoal to the presumed volume of poison ingested. Common dosages on the pseudo-science nutrition pages are right around 25-100 grams for adults. Keep in mind that 100 grams equals about a quarter pound of charcoal. That is an amazing amount equal to about 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.

My review? Horrible and a waste of time.

This 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. Clearly, he tries things out on his kids as well. He certainly makes a strong argument for the former here. And understand that the CDC uses charcoal only to mop up toxins: there is no use for it as a behavior modification tool. As for his kid’s behavior? My guess is that doping them with chemicals when they act like children scares the crap out of them so they shape up. I’m hoping that they never  have seizures and Asbury reads about at home brain surgery. Just to see if it works for the kids.

Poison Control

How does charcoal work when given for poison control? As stated above you are administered a drink that contains charcoal at an approximate ratio of 5 parts charcoal to 1 part poison. The charcoal will absorb anything as it flows through your stomach and into the intestines. Not just toxins but nutrients as well. It sometimes causes intestinal blockage and is often administered with a laxative so that it doesn’t linger in your intestines. It can cause vomiting which, if used for poison relief, is good. Doctors just want the poisons out and they’re not picky about which end does the expelling. 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 healthily and let your body do its work. It’s a wonderful machine.

In reading the scant research, my opinion is that, like most shilled non-nutritive stuff people shove down their throats, 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 in pills 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.

Cheers and bottoms up!

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  1. Pingback: Fitness 50: First Take Care of The Basics | Monkey Dance

    • 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.

  2. 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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