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What are the benefits and risks of activated charcoal (and can it affect your birth control)?

Not since the green smoothie or the cronut have we seen a food trend take off as quickly as activated charcoal.

The ingredient is being used in everything from ice cream to bread to lemonade—and is touted as a fun and very Instagram-able way to “detox” your body.

Grey days call for grey lattes. ☁️ ???? @abbyhummus caption: @emzkaz

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But what is activated charcoal actually good for? Well, it turns out there could be a dark side (pun most definitely intended) to the latest food craze: Consuming activated charcoal can decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills and other medications.

What is activated charcoal?

According to Eater, food-grade activated charcoal is produced by heating coconut shells to extremely high temperatures. The ash is then “processed with steam or hot air…to produce a ‘microporous structure.'”

That structure then acts like a sponge, absorbing and soaking up all the molecules and toxins in its path.

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What are the benefits and side effects of activated charcoal?

It’s so good at soaking up toxins that it’s commonly used to treat poisonings by mouth and is even administered in hospital emergency rooms when suspected poisoning has occurred.

But here’s the thing: Activated charcoal doesn’t get to pick and choose what it “soaks up.” So when ingested too closely to medications, even birth control pills, charcoal is likely to absorb the drugs, leaving them ineffective.

“Activated charcoal is given to people who take too much medication because charcoal is so absorbent and can counteract an overdose,” gastroenterologist Patricia Raymond, M.D., told Women’s Health.

“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.”

The contraceptive pill
Consuming activated charcoal could reduce the effectiveness of birth control pills. Image via iStock.
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Most companies that sell activated charcoal recommend waiting at least two hours between taking medications and consuming their product.

The amounts of activated charcoal in "trendy" products, like black ice cream, shouldn't be enough to impact medications significantly. Still, one woman has started a petition to add warning labels to the product.

"If you eat activated charcoal shortly after taking a hormonal contraceptive, you could wind up pregnant," the woman named Julie writes. "In the interest of informed consent, ice cream shops should let their customers know the risk."

Adds Julie: "Please sign this petition to ask companies using activated charcoal in their ice cream to add a little warning label to let people know they should wait two hours between taking medicine and enjoying their treats!"

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So far, more than 19,900 people have signed the petition.

Jenny Damage, owner of Little Damage, a Los Angeles based ice-cream store that sells black ice cream, told Eater that customers worried about the negative effects of the ingredient should consult with their doctors.

Meanwhile, it's also worth noting that many other common foods—like liquorice and grapefruit juice—can also change the effectiveness of everyday medications.

LISTEN: Jessie Stephens explains all the things everyone does on Instagram that we are too embarrassed to admit on Mamamia Out Loud.

But, should we really be buying and ingesting activated charcoal?

While health food blogs and wellness influencers tote the benefits of activated charcoal as a natural method to "lower cholesterol, reduce bloating and remove toxins," in actual fact there is little actual research to back these claims up, according to dietitian and nutritionist Rachel Scoular.

Previously writing for Mamamia, she says that while the powder is used in "extreme situations," as a "chemical absorber for cases of poisoning to remove potent toxins from the body," however this doesn't translate to cleansing the body of a healthy adult.

"Unfortunately, there’s little scientific evidence to support this," she writes.

"Charcoal isn’t selective about what it binds to in our bodies, so it can actually strip the body of nutrients, binding to nutrients and medication in the digestive tract and then blocking their absorption."

When it comes to claims that taking activated charcoal could potentially prevent bloating, Sophie Medlin - a lecturer in nutrition and dietetics for King's College London - said the claims can be traced to outdated research from the 1980.

Writing for The Conversation, Medlin states the supplement was believed to reduce the "amount of gas that is produced," however later studies show this was "not of benefit" when taken alongside the participants' normal diet.

"There are great treatments for wind and bloating that are really effective, such as reducing the fermentable carbohydrates in your diet (the low FODMAP diet) and the use of certain probiotics for irritable bowel syndrome," she said.

Have you tried using activated charcoal in your diet? What are your thoughts? Tell us in a comment below.