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Should You Drink Activated Charcoal?

It may be the detox du jour, but drinking activated charcoal isn't safe for everyone.

About ten years ago, green became the new gold. Juice bar businesses began to boom and veggie- and fruit-packed elixirs became the go-to trend in forward-thinking cities across the country. Now, juicing and cleanses are commonplace; so, naturally, juice moguls and mixologists wanted to bring something new and exciting into the category to, ya know, shake things up a bit (pun intended). Enter: Activated charcoal. Touted as the best thing to hit the detox scene in ages, it's being mixed into cold-pressed concoctions with people downing the tar-colored drinks by the dozen.

Yes, you read that right. People are drinking charcoal. But not to worry, it's not the same the kind used to light up your grill. The activated variety is processed so it becomes ultra-absorbent and safe to consume. It contains tons of tiny little sponge-like pores that suck up everything in sight as soon as it hits the digestive tract. It's so absorbent, in fact, that it's commonly given to those who have been hospitalized due to toxin exposure or drug overdose in order to flush the toxins from their system.

That got the health industry thinking: "If activated charcoal can suck up drugs and toxic chemicals, what else can it do?" As they found out, a lot! It has a ton of health-boosting benefits—but it also can be quite dangerous if consumed incorrectly. Before getting into that though, we'll deliver the good news.

It Can Boost Your Energy (Well, Sort Of).

Although activated charcoal won't give you the type of heart-racing boost your daily coffee delivers, "it can provide energy in a more indirect way," says Lauren Minchen MPH, RDN, CDN, a Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist based in New York City. "Any time the body is rid of toxins and oxidants, it will respond by giving you more energy and better overall health." Who knows, after a few weeks of charcoal guzzling, you may just give the Energizer Bunny a run for his money.

It Can Help Cure Your Hangover.

If the aftermath of Thirsty Thursday typically leaves you feeling dead to the world, charcoal may help take you out of your misery. "Due to its strong cleansing properties, activated charcoal can help remove toxins from the liver and bloodstream after a long night of drinking," explains Minchen. Keep in mind, however, that charcoal will not absorb any of the alcohol left if your system, so it won't be of much assistance if you're still feeling a bit tipsy the morning after your night out.

It Can Give You a Flatter Stomach.

If you've ever had trouble pulling on your pants that fit perfectly the day before, we have some good news: drinking activated charcoal may mean your bloated belly days are numbered! "Charcoal helps to cleanse the intestines and colon, which can help people debloat a bit," notes Minchen. But, fair warning, charcoal does not burn fat; it won't actually make you slimmer, but it may make your clothes fit a bit better and nix that uncomfortably-full feeling associated with bloat.

It's a Powerful Detoxer.

"Charcoal pulls toxins from the body and is a strong detoxifier," says Minchen. However, a strong detox isn't always a good thing. "Any time something binds to toxic compounds and flushes them from the body, you also lose some nutrients in the process.

Veggies, fruits, green tea and flax seeds, on the other hand, are also natural detoxers but they are are much easier on the system, notes Minchen. "The detox process with these foods may be slower than using charcoal, but it's also much safer," she adds.

Want to Drink Activated Charcoal? Be Sure to Do it Safely.

First, be warned: some say activated charcoal tastes like cement. So that Charcoal Lemonade you've been eyeing at the juice store may not taste like the type you slugged back as a kid or even the natural kind you've been picking up from the same juice bar. There really is a wrong way to drink a charcoal-laced elixir. Plus, there's a few groups of people who should skip it all together.

For someone who has never done a cleanse before, Minchen suggests skipping out on this detox du jour. Swing by the juice bar and try something sans charcoal to start. "You'll get some of the detoxifying effects while also consuming essential nutrients that will support the the body's digestion, immune system, organs and cardiovascular system," says Minchen. It's a win-win.

Others who should skip out on the trend include those who are taking prescription medications or supplements. Charcoal can't tell the difference between toxins, meds, vitamins, and minerals. If there is something you have been prescribed by a doctor that is keeping you healthy and safe, do not under any circumstance drink charcoal, warns Minchen.

If you typically drink more than one juice a day, only one should contain charcoal. "Since activated charcoal can can bind to as much as 100 times its own weight, downing it in large doses can cause the detox process to become too harsh, flushing vital nutrients that are stored in fat tissues in the body," says Minchen. While the words "flushing" and "fat" in the same sentence are usually a good thing, in this case, it's quite the opposite.

Timing of your charcoal cocktail is also key. "Ideally, you should only sip it three or four hours after your last meal, says Minchen. "Throughout the day it's vital to fuel the body with fruits and veggies which have the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients the body needs to stay healthy. Since activated charcoal is so absorbent, drinking it during the day or too close to a meal can interfere with the absorption of these nutrients."

On days you know you'll be slugging back a charcoal-infused juice, be sure to drink at least two liters of water. "Using charcoal is a powerful detoxification process. Your body needs lots of water to help flush those toxins out once they are bound by the charcoal," explains Minchen. You'll likely spend the entire day running to and from the rest room, but this is an important step!

Dana Leigh Smith
Dana has written for Women's Health, Prevention, Reader's Digest, and countless other publications. Read more about Dana Leigh
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