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Here's The Real Deal With Drinking Activated Charcoal

Lemonade and other fancy juices made with activated charcoal claim to be a detox cure-all. Are they really?

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You might have seen a bottle of murky "black lemonade" standing out next to the bright green kale concoctions and vibrant red beet blends at the juice bar lately.

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Or maybe a jar of it posed in a pre-workout shot from a fitness Instagrammer.

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Juice made with activated charcoal has become a popular "detox" drink over the past year or so.

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Activated charcoal is charcoal made from coconut, peat, coal or wood that's been heated with a gas that creates internal pores, making it very absorbent. It's traditionally administered in emergency rooms to treat poisoning or drug overdoses.

More recently, juice brands have been adding activated charcoal to lemon juice, water and sweetener (or to other juice blends) to create a beverage that they claim does everything from general detoxing to boosting metabolism to curing hangovers.

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Lots of people swear by it.

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Yoga teacher and blogger Victoria Moore drinks charcoal lemonade once or twice a week — making her own from lemon juice, organic maple syrup, Himalayan sea salt and activated charcoal powder. She hopes to purge toxins from processed food and environmental pollution and says the drink doesn't taste as bad as it looks.

"On days when I start off with a detox drink I notice I feel more clear-headed, less stressed and more energized throughout the day," Moore says.

Food and health blogger Whitney Benjamin created a whole cleanse around activated charcoal, drinking carbon lemonade once a day when she's cleansing or up to four times a day if she notices a problem with her digestion or immune system. She says it's refreshing, and that she thinks it cleans up her gut.

"I am hoping that any toxins or undigested food particles residing in my digestive tract are absorbed via the charcoal," she says.

But what's the truth about its benefits?

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"Not everybody needs a lemonade charcoal Slurpee, but for different situations, charcoal can be extremely helpful," says Judy Fulop, a naturopathic physician at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Because of activated charcoal's absorbent properties, Fulop sometimes suggests capsules of the special carbon to patients — including people who have been exposed to mold and athletes who get diarrhea when running marathons. In both cases, the idea is that charcoal adheres to problematic particles, moving with them out of the gastrointestinal tract.

That absorption isn't always a good thing.

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"It's effective in binding, but it can be too effective, in terms of binding medications a person needs," Fulops says. She recommends that anyone taking medication do so at least 2 hours apart from drinking something with charcoal in it.

The same goes for nutrients. Activated charcoal may also soak up the vitamins from food, so it doesn't really make sense to drink green juice or smoothies with charcoal in them, or sip a charcoal lemonade alongside a salad, Fulop says.

But if you swig that carbon lemonade alone, can it have the promised detoxing effects?

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Juice makers say the drink removes toxins including chemicals, heavy metals and cholesterol.

"As a broad statement I wouldn't say that," Fulop says. While there are some studies that show activated charcoal binding with cholesterol and mycotoxins (toxins in mold), it shouldn't be seen as a cure-all, she says.

"Charcoal is not that well studied," Fulop says. "There is not a lot of money in developing a drug of it. Yes, it seems to bind…but there's not a lot of research showing that it does."

Other claims: black lemonade can help with hangovers, and reduce gas or bloating.

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"The research shows that it does not have an effect on the alcohol itself, but it may have an effect on the additives and the chemicals that are in the process with the alcohol," Fulop says. "Some people have headaches and really bad hangovers, and part of it could be that they are more intolerant to some of the byproducts."

While studies have reported mixed results on whether activated charcoal relieves gas, Fulop says she's seen it work, but that it may not help everyone, and not long-term.

"Charcoal has been helpful with patients for gas. But if the bloating is coming from something that continues for a period of time, they need to seek medical attention rather than go for the charcoal."

As for some marketers' claims that activated charcoal-spiked drinks will boost your metabolism or increase energy, Fulop says there isn't research to back them up.

Bottom line: activated charcoal is pretty harmless in very small amounts, according to Fulop.

But she warns it could cause constipation, and turn your tongue (and your poop) black. She also recommends addressing any underlying medical problems that black lemonade might soothe with a healthcare professional.

"It's not a panacea," Fulop says.

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