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The Truth About Activated Charcoal (and Other Gut Health Myths)
03.04.19

In partnership with Poo~Pourri

A friend recently told me she couldn’t even think about ice cream without getting diarrhea. Which I think is just about the bravest admission since these stars walked the red carpet makeup-free. In “polite” society, people tend to keep hush on the taboo topic of bathroom talk, but just as abstinence-only education breeds wildly misinformed sexual conduct, being tight-lipped about butt-and-gut stuff creates the perfect breeding ground for false information. For example, my dear friend and colleague Nora suggested I use activated charcoal at any mention of stomach pain. Dr. Rupy Aujla, however, a person with a medical license and years of practice in the field, tells me that “activated charcoal needs to politely go away.” See the discrepancy there?

Demystifying this conversation is one of the key goals of Poo~Pourri — our partner and inspiration for this story. Sure, Poo~Pourri is a toilet spray (sprayed directly into the loo before you poop, creating a film of essential oils that traps the odor), but as a brand it aims to make the experience of going to the bathroom whenever you need to a lot easier. And tbh, I feel like we have a lot in common: Poo~Pourri is centered around breaking taboos and opening up conversations around typically forbidden topics (like going to the bathroom and gut issues). My hypothetical personal ad simply reads: “Taboo breaker 4 same?”

Which is why, with the brand’s help, I decided to seek out the truth regarding five myths related to gut health and toilet time, because there’s nothing to be embarrassed about when it comes to our bodies and health. Ever wondered what makes a healthy pooping schedule, or if probiotics really work? Read on to be enlightened. And while you’re at it, stock up on MR HQ’s new favorite bathroom product.


Myth #1: Pooping once a day is a sign of good health.

The Truth:

Let’s just jump right in, shall we? (I can think of much cuter things to talk about than our pooping schedules, but we’re not gonna learn anything that way.) “While this may be true for some people, the term ‘normal’ is all relative when it comes to digestion,” says Marlee Coldwell, a registered dietitian. “While one person may consider three bowel movements per day to be healthy, another may feel best pooping only three times per week. Instead of striving for one poop daily, think about when your body feels best and use that as your baseline of healthy digestion.”

She adds that, more than the number of times we go, we should consider what we go: “The appearance, consistency and form of our poop is just as important to measure health outcomes. For example, if your poop is hard and painful to eliminate, you may be constipated, which could lead to anal fissures or hemorrhoids. Other signs of potential health issues could be recurrent mucous or blood in your stool. Talk to a doctor or dietitian if you experience these things!”


Myth #2: The more fiber the better!

The Truth:

Not only does fiber help us to form healthy poops, but according to Nutritional Biochemist and Registered Dietician Shawn Wells, it can promote overall health by regulating blood sugar, contributing to feelings of fullness and proper bowel movements, and adding healthy bacteria in your gut. “Most people are not getting enough fiber, and that’s the bigger concern,” he warns.

Marlee Coldwell agrees. “The recommended amount of fiber for women is 25 grams per day and 30-38 grams per day for men. In my own practice, as well as in the research, I see that most North Americans eat well below the recommended amount of dietary fiber — many only hit about 15 grams per day!” Some practical ways to add more fiber to your diet are to include whole grains at each meal (think “closer to the farm” says Coldwell — i.e., less processed); add legumes like lentils, beans and chickpeas to your meals; and use fiber-boosts (chia, ground flax and mixed nuts) where you can.

“I recommend adding fiber into your diet slowly, spacing it out with meals and lots of water,” Shawn adds, noting that it’s possible to overdo fiber as well — which could put you at risk for problems like diarrhea, constipation, stomach cramps, bloating, and possibly even nutritional deficiency.


Myth #3: Probiotics aid in digestion and overall gut health.

The Truth:

The experts agree: Probiotics — the live microbes and good bacteria that live in our gut — do aid in digestion and overall gut health. “They provide all kinds of health benefits in our bodies, including better digestion, improved mood and energy, better immunity and reduced inflammation,” says Marlee. But it’s not that cut and dry: “There is a common misconception that everyone needs to be taking a probiotic supplement or they’re neglecting their digestive system.” We all have probiotic bacteria living in our gut regardless of supplement usage, she tells me, and for many of us, that is enough!

Still, many people with digestive disorders do need the extra push that a probiotic supplement can give them, so she recommends specific species and strains of probiotics based on patients’ specific conditions. “It is best to talk to a health professional to learn whether you may need [a probiotic], and which product would work best for you!” she says.

“Probiotics are a big part of my healthy gut regimen,” says Suzy Batiz, Founder and CEO both of Poo~Pourri and supernatural, who explains how to incorporate probiotics in a more natural way — without the use of supplements. “I incorporate them into my diet with fermented foods like low-sugar kombucha, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and yogurt.” Dr. Rupy Aujla of The Doctor’s Kitchen, who says taking probiotics in the form of foods does improve gut health, supports this practice. “I believe having fermented foods in your diet is a good addition.”


Myth #4: Activated charcoal will solve all of my gut problems (but also absorb all my birth control).

The Truth:

As it turns out, Dr. Rupy Aujla isn’t the only one who thinks activated charcoal needs to go away (sorry Nora). “Similar to the probiotic issue, charcoal has become ‘trendy’ and is more of a marketing tactic than an evidence-based health recommendation,” says Coldwell, who admits that the claims of what activated charcoal may do (“Detoxify your body! Improve your energy! Reduce bloating! Make your body more alkaline!”) sound impressive, but “we just don’t have the evidence to back it up.”

“Activated charcoal is just a medicine that we use in specific scenarios — emergency medicine,” Dr. Aujla continues. “It is not something that I believe people should be taking regularly in their diet, and nothing that you can take in the form of activated charcoal should be without the direction of a medical practitioner who knows what they’re doing. I really see limited use for activated charcoal in the wellness space.”

Sure, he says, it can make drinks look cool and it can make pizza bases look weird, but “there isn’t a shred of evidence that it can help the general population.” If people want to focus on anything, Dr. Aujla suggests we focus on greens. “Get your brassica vegetables in — broccoli, cavolo nero, Tuscan kale. All these different ingredients are far, far more interesting and safer than activated charcoal.” Oh, and will it absorb birth control? “Yeah, women need to be aware of that.”


Myth #5: One day, everyone will be obsessed with their poop because gut health is the future of wellness.

The Truth:

“For a long time, I’ve held the belief that your poop tells a bigger story about your overall wellness,” says Batiz. Today, more and more experts agree. Evidence shows that the gut appears to be linked to a lot of functions in the human body, from immunity, to mood, to digestion (of course). “I think we’re already at that point where people are obsessed with poop,” says Dr. Aujla. “I know I am, and I know a lot of people in the wellness space are super interested.”

“Perhaps the most exciting part of this burgeoning area of health is the way it can reduce stigma,” Marlee adds. “‘Poop talk’ has always been so frowned upon and was definitely considered unladylike. With the emergence of gut health research, we are finally starting to get more comfortable talking about poop, farts and the like, which brings so much more awareness and helps us to get the help we may need!”

I guess Dr. Aujla may be right — gut health “is not the future of wellness, it really is wellness.”


This story was produced in Partnership with Poo~Pourri. Special thanks to the experts who contributed:

Dr. Rupy Aujla is a medical doctor specializing in general practice who also does a bit of emergency medicine. A firm believer in the power of food and lifestyle change as medicine, he also runs The Doctor’s Kitchen.

Marlee Coldwell is a registered dietitian with Ignite Nutrition, a dietitian-owned and operated nutrition counselling practice in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Ignite specializes in digestive health, women’s health and building better relationships with food.

Suzy Batiz is the founder and CEO of Poo~Pourri and supernatural. She is a serial creator and expert in entrepreneurial intuition who has built an empire by tackling taboo topics and shaping culture by challenging societal norms. She doesn’t recognize conventional boundaries and operates on an expansive plane of “anything is possible.”

Shawn Wells (MPH, RD, LDN, CISSN, FISSN) has overcome a brain tumor, Epstein Barr, Hashimoto’s, obesity and depression by using the keto diet, fasting, whole food (paleo) and biohacking himself for the past 20 years. He’s a registered dietitian, certified sports nutritionist and nutritional biochemist who speaks all over the world.

Photos by Heidi’s Bridge.

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