Charcoal supplements or activated charcoal refers to a fine and odourless black powder that is used to handle poison and drug overdoses in the ER. Charcoal contains toxic absorbent properties that come with a broad range of cosmetic and medicinal uses, even though most are yet to be scientifically proven.
The production of activated charcoal is done through a process that involves superheating wood and other natural carbon sources. This black powder ensures that toxins don’t get absorbed into the bloodstream by binding to them in the stomach. Given that the body can’t absorb charcoal, the toxins get to escape the body through the defecation process.
Activated Charcoal – What Is It?
It is important to not confuse activated charcoal with the same substances found in burnt food pieces and charcoal bricks for a barbeque. Charcoal supplements manufacturers have to ensure that the supplement is enormously absorbent, enabling it to bind to atoms, ions, and molecules.
Consuming charcoal meant for your barbeque is unsafe and should not be eaten. It is also advised to avoid eating burnt, blackened food as there are potential links between this and developing cancer. However, the evidence around this is not yet clear.
Preparing activated charcoal often involves super-heating materials rich in carbon such as sawdust, wood, coconut shells, and peat. The process of activating of this charcoal helps to strip this charcoal of any materials that it may have absorbed in the past, thereby freeing up all its available bonding sites.
Activation also assists in reducing the charcoal pore sizes while at the same time creating new holes in the molecules. This, in turn, assists in enhancing its entire surface area. Because of this, a single teaspoon of this supplement contains more surface area compared to an ordinary football field (1).
Activated Charcoal Medicinal Uses
As noted above, hospitals tend to use activated charcoal to treat poisonings and drug overdoses. These include malaria medication, NSAIDs, sedatives, calcium channel blockers and other medications or drugs. It isn’t able to bind to all drugs and toxins such as alcohol, iron, and household cleaning products to name a few.
For alert individuals, the doctors can make them ingest a drink using a powdered form of this charcoal.
It is strongly advised to seek medical help if you or someone else has poisoning or suffered an overdose. It is not advised to try and self-cure this by taking charcoal supplements.
Other Possible Uses and Benefits of Activated Charcoal Supplements
Currently, activated charcoal is only approved for use in treating poisonings and overdoses. However, the fact that it contains potent toxic-clearing properties has led to certain advocates proposing that it be used to treat other conditions. Some NHS hospitals do recommend trying charcoal supplements as a herbal remedy for alleviating wind and bloating (2). However, they do mention that this is not scientifically proven. Some of its current uses include the following:
1. Water Filtration
Activated charcoal is sometimes used to try and reduce fluoride and heavy metals in water (3). However, it is not proven to help remove hard water, bacterias and viruses. It is commonly found in many water filters and is sometimes used in the form of a charcoal stick to naturally filter water. It is also commonly used for commercial use.
2. Intestinal Gas
The powder form of activated charcoal is believed to contain properties that can be used to disrupt intestinal gases, even though scientists have yet to prove how this works. Gases and liquids that have gotten trapped inside the intestines can easily permeate through the many small holes present in activated charcoal. It’s a process that assists in neutralizing them.
A 2012 study conducted on people with a history of excessive intestinal gases saw the participants being provided with four hundred and forty-eight milligrams of this supplement (4). Each participant was required to take it at least thrice each day for forty-eight hours. They would then proceed to take an ultrasound examination. On the day of the exam, the participants would need to take six hundred and seventy-two milligrams of activated charcoal. The researchers found that taking activated charcoal made it easier for them to use the ultrasound to examine areas that would have gotten obstructed by the intestinal gases
2. Kidney Health
Activated charcoal may assist to boost kidney function through its ability to filter out all the undigested drugs and toxins. It has particularly been seen to play an active role in eliminating toxins derived from urea which is a primary byproduct of protein digestion. While additional research is required, studies conducted on animals have shown that the charcoal can reduce inflammation, gastrointestinal damage, and enhance kidney function (5).
3. Skin Infection
Traditional medicine experts and practitioners from around the globe rely on activated charcoal prepared from coconut shells to assist them to treat recurrent soft tissue conditions.
It’s believed that the charcoal possesses antibacterial properties which enables it to absorb harmful microbes that may be present on the skin wounds. Research has proven that activated charcoal dressings that contain silver helped reduce healing times and infection control, eliminating bacterial barriers (6).
4. Skin Care
Some scientists have reported that the use of this charcoal can assist in drawing out micro particles like bacteria, dirt, toxins, and chemicals to the skin surface (7). This, in turn, makes it easy to get rid of them.
5. Oral Health and Teeth Whitening
There are dozens of oral health care and teeth whitening products that contain activated charcoal. Products containing this ingredient claim to have various benefits including the elimination of toxins, and antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial properties.
A 2017 review established that there was insufficient and inconclusive data to prove the efficiency or safety of this charcoal in promoting oral health or teeth whitening (8). Its toxin absorbing capabilities could work well here, even though there isn’t sufficient evidence to support its real-world use for oral health and teeth whitening.
It’s not uncommon to come across numerous deodorants manufactured using activated charcoal. This charcoal can easily absorb harmful gases and unwanted smells, making it ideal for use as a refrigerator, shoe, and underarm deodorant.
Some reports indicate that this charcoal can control humidity levels and absorb excess moisture at a micro-level.
Potential Risk and the Bottom Line
The Final Word
To date, there aren’t any known adverse reactions related to the use of activated charcoal in its numerous forms. The supplements are also readily available for purchase from numerous online retailers. It’s recommended that you begin by consulting your physician before ingesting oral activated charcoal products, especially if you are currently under medication. This is because certain medications can interfere with its absorption rates.