Hi friends! Today we’re talking about another health trend: activated charcoal as a supplement.
With its strikingly dark black color, activated charcoal supplements and foods with added activated charcoal have gained popularity in the health and wellness scenes in recent years.
Activated charcoal has also seen a recent resurgence in popularity, as it has been marketed by some companies as a way to ‘detox’ and protect against the novel coronavirus. If you want to read more about immunity supplements, check out this post about immunity supplements in general, and this post about colloidal silver.
But back to activated charcoal: do you need activated charcoal? Does it detox your body? And is it safe?
*Disclaimer: As always, this is general information intended for healthy adults. Your needs may vary based on medical status, lifestyle, or life-stage. Please never replace generalized health information you’ve read online with individualized clinical care.
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal is similar to common charcoal that is made from peat, coal, wood, coconut shell or petroleum. Activated charcoal, however, is made by heating common charcol in the presence of a gas, which causes the charcoal to develop lots of tiny holes or pores. The tiny pores or holes help the activated charcoal ‘trap’ chemicals.
It is often taken orally to treat poisonings. It’s also now commonly marketed as a ‘detox’ supplement to ‘remove toxins’ from the body. Some people also claim it can alleviate a hangover, calm an upset stomach, stop gas, and with help bile flow problems.
In addition to being sold as a remedy or supplement, activated charcoal is also often added to food products, making them a striking black hue.
Do I need to supplement with activated charcoal?
Unless you’ve ingested poison and have been told to take activated charcoal by a medical professional, the answer is probably no.
Typically, activated charcoal is taken under the direction and care of a medical professional after ingestion of a toxic substance. This use of activated charcoal has a ‘possibly effective’ evidence-based rating to support its use.
The longer the period between ingesting the toxic substance and the charcol, the less efficacious it will be. Thus, if a person were to actually ingest something toxic or poisonous, its most efficacious to take the activated charcoal as soon as possible (within one hour).
Again, and I can’t stress this enough, this should be done under the care of a medical professional if it is determined an individual has ingested a potentially toxic amount of a poison. The medical professional can determine an appropriate dose and screen for potential medicine interactions and watch for side effects (so even if you think you may need to take charcoal for a serious potential toxicity, please call a physician).
When it comes to other conditions, there is ‘insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness’ for lowering cholesterol levels, diarrhea, decreasing gas, indigestion, treating reduced bile flow during pregnancy, lowering phosphate levels, preventing hangovers, wound healing, and other conditions.
Does it ‘detox’ the body?
Well, activated charcoal can bind to certain xenobiotics (foreign substances in the body) and decrease their absorption. Activated charcoal prevents absorption of the foreign agents from being absorbed in the GI tract. Thus, it is effective if the drug or foriegn agent has not yet been absorbed.
Activated charcoal is most effective at absorbing non-ionized forms of xenobiotics. Polar and water-soluble molecules are less likely to be adsorbed.
Activated charcoal does not effectively absorb alcohols, electrolytes (like potassium, sodium and magnesium), nor metals like iron and lithium.
And importantly, it adsorbs things that haven’t been absorbed by your GI tract yet. So, if you went out drinking or did some drugs a couple of days ago or even ate a crappy diet over the weekend and want to ‘undo’ these things a couple of days later, there’s no point. Not only is charcoal not intended for these things, if you’ve already absorbed them, activated charcoal won’t do anything.
If you’re looking for a ‘detox,’ know that your kidney and liver are your body’s natural detoxification organs, and that there is no need to seek out ‘detox’ products in general, which are often unproven for safety and efficacy.
Potential side effects:
Activated charcoal has not been shown to be significantly toxic, as it is not absorbed into the body. In fact, it is considered ‘likely safe’ for most adults when taken by mouth over the short-term under instruction of a medical professional.
That said, this evidence is based on regulated standard dosing, and the amounts of activated charcoal added to foods and beverages are not regulated doses.
There are side effects that may occur from ingesting activated charcoal, including constipation, vomiting, and black stools. It is not recommended for those who have intestinal blockages, as it can slow the passage of food through the intestine.
Potential interactions with medications and micronutrients:
Activated charcoal binds to things in your GI tract. This may include certain medications, and certain micronutrients.
Because activated charcoal binds to substances in the stomach and intestine, it may bind to medications, decreasing the amount absorbed by your body. Depending on your reliance on the medication, this could be potentially dangerous as you won’t get as much as you need.
Additionally, activated charcoal may bind to certain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants found in your foods, ultimately inhibiting some of the potentially beneficial compounds found in fruits, vegetables, etc. Thus, if you are aiming to get the most benefit from a food or drink product, you’re better off consuming a non-charcoal added version, as you will be better able to absorb the nutrients.
Activated Charcoal and COVID-19:
To date, there is no evidence to suggest taking activated charcoal orally will prevent falling ill with the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
Some have suggested that activated charcoal filters in masks may be helpful for reducing viral spread, and they have been shown to protect against toxic gas inhalation when compared to regular surgical masks, but to date, this has not yet been studied for COVID-19.
Take Home: Activated Charcoal as a Supplement
Activated charcoal is used in some medical settings when a healthcare professional determines an individual has ingested a potentially dangerous amount of a toxic substance. Other uses, such as using activated charcoal as a supplement or ‘superfood’ are not supported by evidence.
For most healthy people, there is no need to seek out ‘detox’ products. Taking activated charcoal might interfere with your ability to absorb certain nutrients and medicines, and thus, taking activated charcoal should be done under the care of a medical professional.
If you liked: ‘Activated Charcoal as a Supplement,’ you may also like:
- Supplements for Immune Support: What does the science say?
- Is colloid silver safe?
- COVID-19 and food safety: what do we know so far?