What is Activated Charcoal & What Does it Do?

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What is activated charcoal? And does it do everything that it is claimed to? Activated charcoal has gained social media coverage over the past two years—promising anything from whiter teeth to a cleaner digestive system. The articles that I have read conflict each other in the stated benefits, the dosage, the evidence and the side effects. So is there any REAL evidence?

Capsule of activated charcoal opened onto a white table

What is activated charcoal?

The charcoal is made from coal, wood or other natural substances such as coconut shells. The activation process involves burning the charcoal at high temperatures and using a gas or activating agent to increase the surface area of the charcoal. This leads to small pores or holes being created on the surface of the charcoal—thus increasing the total surface area.

How does activated charcoal work?

Activated charcoal is a highly adsorbent material. The pores created during the activation process bind with poisons, chemicals, medications and nutrients. The charcoal’s effects occur in the gastrointestinal tract, and it cannot distinguish between a poison and nutrient.

“The charcoal’s effects occur in the gastrointestinal tract, and it cannot distinguish between a poison and nutrient.”

A long history of use to treat poisons

Activated charcoal has a long history of use for treating specific short onset (acute) poisoning, including the Eastern practices of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is also used for this purpose in modern hospital emergency departments.

It does not treat all poisons, so it is essential to seek emergency medical help. Call an ambulance.

It does not treat:

  • Alcohol
  • Cyanide
  • Iron tablets
  • Lithium
  • Strong acid or base poisons

Other claims

There is currently no or insufficient evidence to say that activated charcoal assists with arthritis, bites, bowel disease, the lowering of blood cholesterol, coeliac disease, candidiasis, dental infections, heart disease, excess gastrointestinal gas, high blood pressure, kidney disease, liver disease and wound healing. The main popular claim is that the charcoal supports detoxing the body.

Detoxing

Our body has five main systems to support detoxing processes and these are our—skin, lungs, liver, kidneys and colon. When these are all working, we do not need any additional supplements or support. However, these systems can become overloaded by our lifestyle choices (food, drink, exercise, sleep), environmental pollutants, medications and stress. We may also be genetically at risk to develop a weakness, but sometimes this can be delayed or offset by appropriate lifestyle choices. If you are not functioning at your optimum, then please see your healthcare practitioner for a health check.

Side effects

Activated charcoal is usually taken orally in tablet, capsule or powered form, and it can have the following side effects:

  • Black stools
  • Black tongue
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Vomiting

In severe cases it can cause intestinal blockages

Activated charcoal binds with a range of medications and nutrients, decreasing our uptake of these from the digestive tract. As with all supplements, check with your healthcare practitioner first.

There is no scientific evidence to suggest that taking activated charcoal is either effective or safe. Whilst it has a history of use in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, it has only been used under the supervision of qualified practitioners for specific conditions.

“Would I take activated charcoal for general health?” “No.” If you feel like you need a detox and a boost of energy, then always look to food first, as well as sleep and exercise. The Eating for You book is designed to support you in this way. I also recommend a check up with your healthcare practitioner.

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Other reading

Huffington Post. So Eating Activated Charcoal Is A Thing Now, 3 November 2016

WebMd Activated Charcoal

I also have other references that include unsubstantiated claims, which I suspect are sponsored by manufacturers and retailers of the product. The scientific literature is scant on this topic, other than for the treatment of poisonings.

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