6 Useful benefits of activated charcoal

Activated charcoal cuppa
Image by Nathan Dumlao – Unsplash

Studies reveal that activated charcoal is used frequently as a gastrointestinal decontaminant for both humans and pets.

I first used it a few years ago when my elderly Yorkie became ill after ingesting something he shouldn’t have. I contacted the vet and she told me to administer activated charcoal powder mixed in water. It was a rather messy job but I was astounded at how quickly it worked. A few hours later, my little dog was doing a lot better.

Ever since that day, I make sure we have activated charcoal capsules in stock at home. We’ve often used them when experiencing gut issues, be it a stomach bug, food poisoning, flatulence, or cramps. Our usual go-to remedy is olive leaf extract as mentioned in a previous article. But if we believe the cause of our discomfort is due to food poisoning or a nasty bug, we use both. First, the activated charcoal to absorb any potentially toxic substances and then about three hours later, we use olive leaf extract, increasing the dose if necessary.

It’s important to note that since activated charcoal has a detoxifying effect by soaking up the drugs/toxins in the stomach to stop their harmful effects, it cannot be taken within two to three hours of other medication. It will affect the medicine’s efficacy if taken with activated charcoal. This includes over-the-counter medications, anti-epileptics, antidepressants, birth control pills, blood pressure medication, diabetic medication, and all types of steroids, even those from inhalers. In other words, a range of medication, even vitamins and minerals should not be taken within two to three hours of ingesting activated charcoal. The trick is that the charcoal needs to be in the stomach at the same time as the toxic substance/drug that you’re trying to get rid of. There also has to be sufficient charcoal to absorb the toxins. The charcoal will only work if it reaches the toxin/drug before it enters the bloodstream. So, timing and dosages are key.

Let’s take a closer look at what activated charcoal is and find out more about its claimed benefits.

What is it?

Activated charcoal is a fine black powder, made from coconut shells, peat, bone char, petroleum coke, coal, olive pits or sawdust.

The method used to activate the charcoal involves processing it at high temperatures. It is these high temperatures that transform its internal structure, reduce the pore size, and increase its surface area. The result is charcoal that is more porous compared to regular charcoal. The porous texture distinguishes it from other types of charcoal, especially the more toxic varieties which are used for barbecuing, which can harm humans.

How does it work?

Activated charcoal attracts molecules such as gases and toxins that are positively charged since its porous texture has a negative electrical charge. By doing this, it traps toxins and chemicals in the stomach, thereby preventing absorption. Since the body doesn’t absorb the charcoal, the toxins that bind to its surface are carried out of the body through excrement.

This is great if you’ve accidentally consumed something toxic or overdosed on drugs. Not so if you’ve taken vitamins, supplements, or required medication that needs to be absorbed. The charcoal does not discern good from bad molecules. Although this doesn’t appear to be the case for food or beverages.

Activated charcoal does not bind to metals. Some myths state that charcoal can be used to rid your body of heavy metals. These are false. It also doesn’t bind to alcohol, so the claims about it preventing hangovers are equally false.

How much activated charcoal is needed?

Ten times more charcoal than the substance it is trying to absorb should be taken. If you’re rushed to the hospital due to an overdose, the medical staff are likely to give you a dose of approximately 50,000 mg of activated charcoal. If you buy capsules online, in health stores, or pharmacies, they’re usually sold in 200 mg to 500 mg capsules. The juices containing activated charcoal sold in many convenience stores lately, only contain about 10 mg of charcoal. You can safely consume these with vitamins or required medications as the amount of charcoal in these drinks is too little to have a negative effect on your required supplements or medication. It’s still important to be mindful that the charcoal might have some effect on the drug’s efficacy. Remember too, you need a lot more than these drinks offer to absorb unwanted toxins or drugs.

Studies reveal that the effectiveness of charcoal decreases with time. “Data using at least 50 g of activated charcoal, showed a mean reduction in absorption of 47.3%, 40.07%, 16.5% and 21.13%, when activated charcoal was administered at 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 120 minutes and 180 minutes, respectively, after dosing.” 

6 Benefits of activated charcoal

Women holding up charcoal hands
Image by Jeremy Bishop – Unsplash
  1. May aid kidney function

Activated charcoal may aid kidney function by filtering undigested toxins and drugs out of the body. It also seems to be effective at eradicating toxins derived from urea, the main product of protein digestion, especially in patients suffering from chronic kidney disease. Although further studies are needed, it appears to improve kidney function in these patients. Healthy kidneys are otherwise well equipped to function effectively in filtering blood without any help.

For people suffering from chronic kidney disease, some studies have shown that activated charcoal could improve kidney function and reduce gastrointestinal damage. A study revealed significant reductions in intestinal inflammation and damage in rats induced with chronic kidney disease that were given 4 g per kilogram of activated charcoal daily.

  1. Reduces flatulence

Researchers are unsure exactly how activated charcoal appears to disrupt intestinal gas. It appears that since liquids and gases stuck in the intestine are easily able to pass through the tiny holes in the charcoal, this process may neutralise these gasses.

A study revealed that individuals with a history of excessive gas who consumed 448 mg of activated charcoal three times daily for two days before undergoing abdominal ultrasound examination and 672 mg on the morning of the ultrasound, enabled the medical practitioners to see certain parts of their organs better. The charcoal appeared to prevent the intestinal gas from obscuring these organs as was the case had they not taken the charcoal treatment.

About 34% of the participants who were given the activated charcoal to reduce flatulence had improved symptoms. Although research remains limited, a panel of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) claim that there is sufficient evidence to support using activated charcoal to reduce the accumulation of intestinal gas. They recommend a dosage of at least 1 g at 30 minutes before and after a meal.

  1. Reduces diarrhoea

Some studies have found that activated charcoal may help to prevent bacteria and drugs that induce diarrhoea. It does this by trapping the bacteria or drugs to its porous and textured surface. Due to charcoal’s gastrointestinal absorbent properties in poisoning and overdoses, it is thought that it may be a beneficial treatment for diarrhoea. Since its side effects are minimal, researchers believe it may also be a better option than some other anti-diarrhoea medications.

  1. Skin care

Some evidence suggests that activated charcoal can help to draw impurities to the surface of the skin. Thus, making it easier to remove these microparticles from our skin. You might like to try some of these  activated charcoal products to do just that. Many traditional medical practitioners use charcoal to treat skin infections. It aids in absorbing harmful bacteria from open wounds.

Man applying charcoal facemask
Image by Safia Shakil – Unsplash
  1. Water filtration

Activated charcoal has long been used as a natural water filter. It works in a similar way on the chemicals found in water as it does in our intestines and stomach. The charcoal interacts with and absorbs the toxins, viruses, fungus, bacteria, and chemicals found in water. Waste-management centres also use activated carbon granules for a part of the filtration process. There are also many filtration products designed for home use.

  1. Deodorant

Since activated charcoal appears to absorb smells and harmful gases, it is also used as an underarm, shoe, and fridge deodorant. It has been reported that charcoal can also absorb excess moisture.

It may also assist in reducing unpleasant odours in people suffering from fish odour syndrome or trimethylaminuria (TMAU). The charcoal appears to bind the small odorous TMA compounds, increasing their excretion and reducing the foul-smelling symptoms experienced by sufferers of this genetic condition.

Fine black activated charcoal powder
Image by Adrien Olichon – Unsplash

Side-effects of activated charcoal

The adverse effects of activated charcoal are minimal and rarely severe. These include nausea, vomiting, black stools, and constipation.

One of the risks of using activated charcoal in an emergency room as a remedy for overdose or poisoning is if the person receiving it is semi-conscious. This could result in the charcoal travelling to the lungs. It should, therefore, only be administered to conscious individuals.

Individuals with a rare genetic disease called variegate porphyria that affects the skin, gut, and nervous system should tread with caution with activated charcoal. It can worsen their symptoms. In rare cases, it has also been linked to bowel blockages or holes.

As mentioned earlier, the other risk of using activated charcoal is that it can reduce the efficacy and absorption of certain medications. If you’re taking prescribed and/or chronic medication, it’s best to consult your medical practitioner before taking charcoal.

Take away

Activated charcoal is a useful product to keep in your home in case of poisoning or overdose. It can be used on pets too. Vets regularly treat animals who have eaten something poisonous with activated charcoal.

It’s generally considered safe, although it may have side effects or uncomfortable symptoms in some individuals. It can also interfere with medications.

If you suspect drug poisoning immediately seek professional care. If using charcoal supplements at home, follow the dosage instructions to ensure that you maximise the benefits of these supplements.

Bear in mind that despite the benefits of charcoal mentioned above, the scientific evidence remains weak.

Interested in trying charcoal supplements – you can find a range on Amazon and Faithful to Nature.

For further studies on this product, you can try this book.

For more on health and wellness – click through to some of my previous articles here.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only. No material contained herein is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment before undertaking a new health care regime, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read.

Authored by Delilah Nosworthy

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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