Activated charcoal was considered a universal antidote. Today, it is still promoted as a powerful natural treatment. It has a variety of benefits, ranging from lowering cholesterol to whitening teeth and curing hangovers. This article has a detailed view on activated carbon and the science behind its intended benefits.
What is Activated Carbon?
Activated charcoal is a fine black powder made from coal bone, coconut shells, peat, petroleum coke, coal, olives or sawdust. Coal is “activated” by processing it at very high temperatures. High temperatures change its internal structure, reducing the size of its pores and increasing its surface area.
This results in a carbon that is more porous than regular coal. Activated charcoal should not be confused with charcoal briquettes that are used to light the barbecue. Although both can be manufactured from the same base materials, carbon briquettes have not been “activated” at high temperatures. In addition, they contain additional substances that are toxic to humans.
Summary: Activated carbon is a type of coal that is processed to make it more porous. This porous texture is what distinguishes it from other types of coal, including the type used for barbecue.
How does Activated Carbon Work?
Activated carbon acts by trapping toxins and chemicals in the intestine, preventing the absorption of these toxins. The porous texture of charcoal has a negative electrical charge, which attracts positively charged molecules, such as toxins and gases. This helps to trap toxins and chemicals in the intestine.
“Because activated carbon is not absorbed by your body, it can carry toxins attached to its surface out of your body in the stool”.
Summary: Activated carbon of negative charge, porous texture helps to trap toxins, preventing your body from absorbing.
Activated Carbon as an Emergency Poison Treatment:
Thanks to the properties of activated carbon to trap toxins, activated charcoal has a variety of medical uses. For example, activated carbon is often used in cases of poisoning. This is because it can absorb a wide variety of drugs, reducing their effects. In humans, activated charcoal has been used as a poisonous antidote since the early 1800s. It can be used to treat overdoses of prescription medications, as well as overdoses of over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen and sedatives. For example, studies show that when a single dose of 50-100 grams of activated carbon is taken within five minutes of ingesting the drug, it can reduce the absorption of the drug in adults by 74%. This effect decreases to around 50% when coal is taken 30 minutes after ingestion of the drug and 20% if it is taken three hours after overdose. The initial dose of 50-100 grams is sometimes followed by two to six doses of 30-50 grams every two to six hours. However, this multiple dosing protocol is used less frequently and can only be effective in a limited number of poisoning cases. It is important to keep in mind that activated charcoal is not effective in all cases of poisoning. For example, it seems to have little effect on alcohol, heavy metal, iron, lithium, potassium, acid or alkali poisoning. Moreover, experts warn that activated carbon should not be administered routinely in all cases of poisoning. On the contrary, its use should be considered for each case by individual.
Summary: Activated carbon can bind to a variety of drugs and toxins, preventing their absorption in the body. It is often used as an anti-poison treatment or to treat drug overdoses.
It can Promote Renal Function:
Activated carbon can help promote renal function by reducing the amount of waste that the kidneys must filter. This could be particularly beneficial in patients suffering from chronic kidney disease, a condition in which the kidneys can no longer properly filter waste. Healthy kidneys are usually very apt to filter the blood without any additional help. However, patients suffering from chronic kidney disease generally have more difficulty removing urea and other toxins from the body. Activated carbon may have the ability to bind to urea and other toxins, helping the body eliminate them. Urea and other waste products can pass from the bloodstream to the intestine through a process known as diffusion. In the intestine, toxins bind to activated charcoal and are excreted in feces. In humans, activated charcoal has been shown to help improve kidney function in those suffering from chronic kidney disease. In one study, activated carbon supplements may have helped lower urea levels and other wastes in patients with end-stage renal disease. That said, the current evidence is weak, and more high quality studies are needed before solid conclusions can be drawn.
Summary: Activated carbon can help improve kidney function by promoting the elimination of toxic waste. This can be particularly useful in cases of kidney disease, but more studies are needed.
Reduces the Symptoms of Fish Smell Syndrome:
Activated carbon can help reduce unpleasant odors in individuals suffering from trimethylaminuria (TMAU), also known as fish smell syndrome. TMAU is a genetic condition in which trimethylaminuria (TMAU), a compound with a smell similar to that of rotten fish, that accumulates in the body. Healthy individuals may be able to convert fish-smell TMAU into a non-smelly compound before excreting it in the urine. However, people with TMAU lack the enzyme necessary to perform this conversion. This causes the TMAU to accumulate in the body and penetrate the urine, sweat and breathing, causing a fishy bad smell. Studies show that the porous surface of activated carbon can help absorb small odorous compounds such as TMAU, increasing its excretion. A small study in patients with TMAU analyzed the effects of supplementing with 1.5 grams of activated carbon for 10 days. It reduced the concentrations of TMAU in the urine of patients with the syndrome to normal levels in healthy individuals. These results look promising, but more studies are needed.
Summary: Activated carbon seems to bind small odorous compounds such as TMA. This can reduce smelly symptoms for those who suffer from fish smell syndrome.
It can Reduce Cholesterol Levels:
Activated carbon can also help reduce cholesterol levels. This is because it can bind cholesterol and bile acids that contain cholesterol in the intestine, preventing the body from absorbing them. In one study, taking 24 grams of activated carbon per day for four weeks lowered total cholesterol by 25% and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 25%. “Good” HDL cholesterol levels also increased by 8%. In another study, taking 4-32 grams of activated carbon daily helped reduce total and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 29-41% in people with high cholesterol levels. In this study, the largest doses of activated carbon seemed the most effective. Similar results were reported in most studies, but not all. However, it is interesting to note that all studies related to this subject were carried out in the 1980s. More recent studies would help confirm the link.
Summary: Activated carbon seems to help reduce cholesterol levels, but more recent studies can corroborate this conclusion.
Activated carbon is also a popular home remedy with multiple uses, although it is important to note that not all of these uses have scientific bases.
The Best Known Home Uses are:
- Gas reduction: Some studies report that activated carbon can help reduce gas production after a meal that causes flatulence. It can also help improve the smell of gas. However, not all studies observed this benefit.
- Filter water: Activated carbon is a popular way to reduce the content of heavy metals and fluoride in water. However, it does not seem to be very effective in eliminating viruses, bacteria or hard minerals in the water.
- Whiten teeth: It is said that adding activated carbon in toothpaste to brush helps whiten teeth. It is inferred that this is achieved because activated carbon absorbs plaque and other compounds that stain the teeth. However, no study could be found to support this claim.
- Hangover Prevention: Activated carbon is sometimes used as a hangover cure. Activated carbon lowers the level of alcohol in the blood, but still its effects on the hangover have not been studied.
- Skin treatment: The application of activated carbon to the skin is used as an effective treatment for acne and insect or snake bites. However, only history-based reports on this topic can be found.
Summary: Activated carbon has several popular home uses. However, only gas reduction and water filtration are supported by science.
Is Activated Carbon Safe?
Activated carbon is considered safe in most cases, and adverse reactions are said to be unusual and rarely severe. That said, it can cause some unpleasant side effects, the most common are nausea and vomiting. In addition, constipation and black stools are two other side effects usually reported. When activated carbon is used as an emergency antidote for poison, there is a risk that it can travel to the lungs, instead of the stomach. This is especially true if the person who ingested activated carbon vomits or is semi-conscious. Because of this risk, activated carbon should only be administered to individuals who are fully aware. On the other hand, activated carbon can worsen symptoms in individuals with porphyria variegata, a rare genetic disease that affects the skin, intestine and nervous system. In addition, in very rare cases, activated carbon has been linked to obstructions or intestinal holes. It is worth mentioning that activated carbon can also reduce the absorption of certain medications. Therefore, people taking medications should consult their healthcare professional before consuming activated carbon.
Summary: Activated carbon is generally considered safe, but it can cause unpleasant symptoms or side effects in some people. It can also interfere with some medications.
Dosing Instructions for Activated Carbon:
Those interested in taking activated carbon may want to follow dose instructions similar to those used in the studies mentioned above. In the case of drug intoxication, it is important to seek medical help immediately. A dose of 50-100 grams can be administered by a medical professional, conveniently within an hour of overdose. Children usually receive a lower dose of 10-25 grams. Doses for other conditions vary between 1.5 grams to treat fishy smell disease and 4-32 grams per day to reduce cholesterol and improve renal function in end-stage renal disease. Activated carbon supplements can be found in pill form or powder. When taken as a powder, activated carbon can be mixed with water or a non-acidic juice. Also, increasing water intake can help prevent constipation symptoms.
Summary: The above dosage instructions can help you maximize the benefits of activated carbon supplements.
Activated carbon is a supplement with a variety of uses. Interestingly, it can have the potential to reduce cholesterol, treat poisoning, reduce flatulence and improve kidney function. However, studies that support these benefits tend to be weak, and many of the other benefits related to activated carbon are not supported by science. Keep this in mind when deciding whether or not to activate activated carbon.