WTF Is It And Should You Try It? is an original A Plus Lifestyle series: Every now and then, we take a closer look at the lifestyle trends taking over our news feeds and find out whether they're worth the hype.
Like basically everyone who isn't already a fitness blogger, I vowed to make health my No. 1 priority in 2017. And, like basically everyone who has made that resolution every year for the past three years, I realized my commitment was wavering a little too quickly. So, on what was probably Day 4, I walked into a pressed juice place and pretended to get back on track.
As I looked at all of the $12 options in the fridge, I made the mistake of grabbing a cloudy black beverage with "activated charcoal" written across its label instead of leaving. Because my friends told me not to, and because I wondered if it would taste chalky, I bought it. It mostly just tasted like lemonade and did nothing for me except make me sad I didn't spend that money on literally anything else.
Anyway, I completely forgot about it until last month when Chrissy Teigen — model, mama, and master of shutting trolls down on Twitter — tweeted a photo of herself pouting while holding a huge activated charcoal drink. "I have been told this will clean my hot dog body from the inside," she wrote.
That got me thinking — what the hell even is activated charcoal? Could it help make your body feel cleansed after filling it with unhealthy foods that should only be qualified as trash? Should I budget for drinking it regularly?
I spoke with three experts to find out what the deal is with this stuff and whether there's any proven benefits to consuming it.
First off, what is activated charcoal?
"Activated charcoal is derived from wood, peat, or coconut shells that are exposed to an oxidizing agent at high heat. This process creates a fine powder with microscopic pores on the surface, which work as traps for compounds and particles," Keri Glassman, celebrity nutritionist, registered dietitian, and founder of Nutritious Life told me.
This process of exposing the charcoal to high heat is what transforms average charcoal into "activated" charcoal. It causes the charcoal to have a magnetic effect that attracts toxins throughout the body and inhibits absorption.
"It's different than regular charcoal used for fuel," Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RDN, and the creator of the F-Factor Diet, explained to me. "It's processed so it becomes safe to consume."
"Activated charcoal is used to remove chemicals, toxins, and gasses," Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, and fitness expert, told me. "This compound is used in water filtration systems and in fish tanks to purify water."
However, there are also medical uses for the stuff, too. Activated charcoal is often used by doctors to treat patients who have been hospitalized for overdoses and poisoning because of its absorption properties. The activated charcoal binds with the ingested substance while it's in their stomachs, which helps to prevent it from being absorbed by their bodies.
But are there any proven benefits to drinking it regularly?
Before I get into the specifics, let me answer this question concisely: No.
Activated charcoal powders, pressed juices, and even lattes are marketed as an aid to do things like improve digestion, decrease bloating, lower cholesterol levels, and all around "detox" your body. But, according to Palinski-Wade, there's no reliable research to support activated charcoal being used in this way.
"Very few large, long-term human studies have been conducted on activated charcoal and it's ability to fight disease, detoxify, or boost overall health," she said. "The majority of research on activated charcoal shows it's ability to help treat medication overdoses. However, it quickly loses its effectiveness and must be used shortly after exposure. This indicates that it most likely would only remove small traces of 'everyday toxins' if ingested immediately after exposure."
Drinking activated charcoal can have several negative effects.
"Activated charcoal can cause severe dehydration if water is not regularly consumed," Zuckerbrot points out. And, it can make you constipated.
"Since constipation is a side effect of the usage of activated charcoal, consuming it with every meal would not be recommended and could lead to chronic constipation or even intestinal blockages. In addition, using activated charcoal may block not just toxins, but the absorption of vital nutrients," Palinski-Wade said.
And, if that weren't bad enough, it has also been shown to reduce the effectiveness of medications. "Yes, this includes your birth control," Glassman said. "Don't worry, drinking one juice probably doesn't mean you're bound to get pregnant, but it's certainly something to be aware of."
So, should you try it?
We're going to recommend you pass on this one. While it's generally safe to consume every once in awhile, it's not worth your money if you're looking to drink it for its detoxing properties.
"We're all looking for the magic potion to fight toxins, so here's the good news: our bodies are miracle workers on their own! With a clean, balanced diet, and proper hydration, our bodies work around the clock to detoxify and cleanse our digestive systems without activated charcoal drinks," Glassman said.
So, next time you think you're in need of a little extra help detoxing, drink plenty of water, load up on antioxidants, and treat your body with the respect it deserves.