I belong to many natural health groups where activated charcoal is mentioned a lot. Is it worth all the hype?
What is Activated Charcoal?
Activated carbon or activated charcoal is considered the same thing. Pretty much any material that was alive at one time such as peat moss, coconut shell, dead wood or other fibrous material can be burned to make charcoal. It can even come from fossil fuels. Any of these sources can become activated charcoal after they are heated extremely high or by using a chemical activator.
How is it made?
The most common method is the heat treatment method where wood or coconut husks are heated by using fire. They are then placed into an enclosed furnace where no oxygen is present but steam is to heat the charred wood and coconut husks up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. (1)
The carbon atoms are then peeled off as the volatile compounds are removed leaving a network of carbon atoms that are hollowed out. This looks like a cobweb of sorts. Because of this high surface area, it can absorb and retain almost anything it comes into contact with.
What is it used for?
There are many applications for activated charcoal such as:
Air filtration such as masks and air purifiers
Medical uses such as drug overdose and poisoning. To be effective it must be used within a short time of the poisoning occurring, typically an hour. It does not work for poisonings by cyanide, corrosive agents, iron, lithium, alcohols or malathion. (2)
Even the WHO (World Health Organization) has it listed as one of their essential medications. If you are looking, it is listed in section 4 titled Antidotes and other substance used in poisonings. (3) That isn’t the problem. When used by trained health care professionals for certain medical issues it can be very effective. The problem is when untrained people start using it for anything and everything. I know people who even take it daily as a dietary supplement. They feel that it keeps them healthier by absorbing and binding with toxins and virus’ they come into contact with. Isn’t that what the immune system is for?
I’ve even heard of people making their own. That is a very risky proposition. Who out there has an oven or chamber that can be heated to 1,800 degrees to remove oxygen and add steam to create the proper carbon? No one I know. When it isn't heated properly, it leaves a product more like charcoal, which is not the same and can end up being carcinogenic and toxic.
What are some possible side effects?
Medications such as antibiotics can’t decipher between good and bad bacteria. They wipe out both. Activated charcoal can’t decipher between a toxin or anything else for that matter, it absorbs all it can. Since these things in the body are different structures and molecules it’s possible for it to absorb one thing and not the other. How do we know it’s going to absorb a virus or toxin and not just something benign? Above we talked about some poisons it doesn’t absorb. How does it know what's what?
Using something in an acute situation for a day or 2 is not the same as using it as a dietary supplement continually. Medical applications are for severe and generally life-threatening situations. It’s never been tested for continued or daily use. If you feel you need to take it daily, I would ask you why? Instead of doing something that can be risky, why not change your lifestyle instead? Replace it with exercise, nutrient dense foods that are not processed, sleep, and water intake.
Side effects can include but not limited to:
Medicine absorption, including birth control pills – it can absorb and remove your medication, so you are not receiving what you think you are
Vitamin and mineral absorption –it can absorb the vitamin and minerals your body needs - you can see this in a fascinating study published in the Journal of Food Quality. (4)
Gastrointestinal issues – it can actually cause issues with the stomach and intestines including but not limited to:
Vomiting and nausea
Bowel obstructions (5)
Activated charcoal can cause some of the same issues you are trying to stop or get rid of.
Activated charcoal will only bind with whatever is in your stomach or intestines at the time you take it. It then will come out generally in a bowl movement. It can also come out by vomiting which can be a VERY messy ordeal if you have kids and they can’t make it in time. Activated charcoal stains carpet and bedding.
Can it be beneficial? Possibly if you have a gastrointestinal issue going on. However, the body is quite capable of removing the harmful bacteria and viral gastroenteritis on its own. Why not support the body during this time with rest and fluids?
Remember nothing is benign, not even water. Anything can be beneficial or toxic, depending on the dose. We have tried activated charcoal in the past for gastrointestinal issues and ended up with a real mess. In my opinion it wasn’t worth it. I still have some and will keep it on hand in case of something dire, however at that point, we are most likely going to the hospital.
Should you have any questions or like to send an email, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading and have a wonderful day!
Love and light,
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