Activated Charcoal: The Powerful Detox Ingredient You Don’t Want in Your Regular Diet

What is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal, also known as activated carbon, is carbon material (like wood or coconut shells) that has been processed to contain many tiny pores creating a very large surface area, making it great at something called adsorption (not absorption).

Adsorption is when molecules of a substance bind to the surface of another—in this case, activated charcoal. (Absorption, on the other hand, is when the molecules of a substance are dissolved or diffused into another substance completely.) This adsorption function is what gives activated charcoal its “healing” or detoxification powers, but also the reason why it shouldn’t be consumed at random.

What are the benefits of activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal has been used since the 1800s to, quite simply, remove ingested toxic substances from the body (which, by the way, is the very definition of detoxification). To this day, activated charcoal, in the form of powder mixed with a liquid (typically water, soda or syrup) is still used in emergency departments to counteract the effects of accidental poisoning or drug overdose, as long as the substance has not yet entered the bloodstream via the gut. So, the sooner activated charcoal is taken after swallowing the drug or poison, the better it works—generally within 30 to 60 minutes. The toxic molecules will bind to the activated charcoal as it works its way through your digestive tract, and then they will leave your body together in your stool.

What types of overdoses can activated charcoal treat?

According to GoodRx medical editor, Dr. Sophie, activated charcoal is a pretty low-risk, first step treatment, and is good for treating any drugs that may still be sitting in the person’s stomach. “Often, it’s not 100% clear what the person has taken, and we have to err on the side of caution. Many overdoses are ‘mixed’ and ‘staggered’, meaning that the person has taken more than one substance and that these have been spread out over time,” she says. “In these cases, it is difficult to know what we are treating, and our patients are not always able to reliably tell us what they have taken, so using activated charcoal can help cover all bases.” In hospitals, activated charcoal is commonly used to treat overdoses involving acetaminophen, antidepressants, and sedatives.

Dr. Sophie also warns of situations where activated charcoal is not recommended, such as “if the person is unconscious, has a gut issue that might require surgery, or has taken substances that are not absorbed well by activated charcoal.”

Here’s a list of substances activated charcoal is not recommended for:

  • substances with metal (e.g., iron, lithium)
  • substances made of hydrogen and carbon (e.g., gases like methane or propane)
  • caustic substances, or substances that cause burns when touched or swallowed (e.g., household cleaners, gasoline, paint thinner)
  • alcohol (can adsorb to activated charcoal but not effectively enough)
  • cyanide (can adsorb to activated charcoal but not effectively enough)
  • opioids

Important: Naloxone is the first-line treatment for opioid overdose, even when the opioid is taken orally. Activated charcoal may help with undissolved pills in the stomach, but you will always have a better chance of survival with naloxone.

That all being said, don’t try to treat an overdose or poisoning on your own. Always seek medical attention right away if you think you or someone else has ingested something that shouldn’t have been, and a healthcare provider will determine what the best treatment is. Activated charcoal will be used if they determine that the substance is still in the stomach (not yet absorbed into the bloodstream) and there is no better treatment at that point.

Can activated charcoal help with stomach gas?

The only other thing that activated charcoal might help with are symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), like diarrhea, gas and bloating. We say might because there isn’t a lot of research to support this, other than this one clinical trial from 1986. To add to the mystery, the exact cause of IBS is unknown, which makes it hard to know what can help prevent and treat it.

That’s it? What about all the other health benefits I’ve been hearing about?

According to research, yes. That’s it.

At the root of the activated charcoal health fad is the misuse, or misunderstanding, of the word “toxin”. In a detox-crazy world, toxins are used to refer to impurities or anything undesirable in your body: stains on your teeth, dirt or dust on your skin, naturally present sugars in your juice, a hangover after a night out.

Personal care products (like teeth whiteners, face masks, soaps, shampoos, and deodorants) containing activated charcoal bank on the idea that impurities can be drawn out during use. Since these products are meant for external use only, they are relatively harmless. But there is little to no research to prove that the trace amounts of activated charcoal, combined with other ingredients, in these products are effective and much more than just marketing.

Activated charcoal products meant to be taken by mouth or eaten, however, are a different story.

The downsides: Food and drug interactions with activated charcoal

And here’s the rub. The same detox effects of activated charcoal can disrupt your regular diet and medication regimen. Whatever’s still sitting in your stomach can potentially adsorb to the activated charcoal in your detox lemonade, waffles, or ice cream.

Though the recommended starting dose of activated charcoal for adults (25–100 grams) may not seem like a lot, a teaspoonful of the powder has the same surface area as a football field. Since supplements and retail restaurants are not regulated by the FDA, it’s hard to know the exact amount of activated charcoal used, so it’s possible that there’s enough to cause some harm. Regular intake of activated charcoal may even cause nutrition deficiency or malnutrition.

Here are the risks of consuming activated charcoal:

Last summer, New York City, under orders from the FDA, had to ban activated charcoal in restaurants—presumably because the city had become a mecca of activated charcoal treats.

What medications are affected by activated charcoal?

As we mentioned above, almost anything taken by mouth can adsorb to activated charcoal given the right circumstances. To make sure any activated charcoal you’ve consumed will not interfere with your health, you should take it at least 1 hour before and 2 hours after meals, medications, or supplements.

People taking ongoing or chronic medications (like statins, antidepressants, the birth control pill, and blood pressure drugs) can be affected the most by activated charcoal, since staying on schedule is important for managing the condition.

While activated charcoal definitely has a place in the medical world, consumer products and foods containing activated charcoal are not proven to have any medical benefit. Always discuss with your physician or nutritionist if you’re thinking about changing your diet, starting a new supplement, or going on a detox cleanse.

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