Activated Charcoal – History, Uses, and Benefits

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Toxins – one of the most overused buzzwords in the fitness and wellness industry. From cleanses to detoxification diets, many gurus and ‘experts’ claim that a proprietary blend of foods, vitamins, minerals, and other compounds will remove harmful substances from your body which in turn will kick-start weight loss, improve energy, and extend life expectancy.

Thankfully your internal organs do a pretty damned good job of filtering out the bad stuff before it builds up in the body and blood stream. However, there are circumstances in which ingesting compounds can not only speed up the body’s natural cleansing processes but may also save your life.

Related: Should You Stop Trying to Lose Weight?

Activated charcoal, also known as activated carbon, is one of those compounds. The healthcare industry uses it to treat poisoning after overdosing on specific medications and poisons. It does so by binding to and preventing the toxic substances from being absorbed in the stomach while also increasing the speed of elimination from the body even after partial absorption. [1] In fact, activated charcoal is so effective at absorbing and eliminating certain compounds that it’s on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of essential medicine. [2]

You might assume such an effective compound would be expensive but it’s one of the cheapest medicines available. The wholesale cost of one 125mg activated charcoal pill is between $0.01 and $0.02 US dollars. [3]

Unlike cutting edge drugs with limited research on long-term effects, the earliest document use of activated charcoal for medicinal purposes dates to 1550 B.C. [4] However it wasn’t until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that activated charcoal received the scientific and clinical support it deserved.

Manufacturers follow a three-step process to create activated charcoal. Firstly, sawdust, peat, or coconut shells are reduced to fine particles through pulverization. These substances are then heated to an extremely high temperature between 600 and 900 degrees Celsius. [5] At this point we have charcoal but it is not yet activated.

Activated CharcoalManufacturers activate the charcoal by applying steam or hot air to break down the charcoal’s internal surfaces. [6] Doing so makes the compound more porous and increases the compound’s surface area with absorption properties.

One gram of activated charcoal contains between 800 and 1,200 square meters of surface area while super-activated variations may have a surface area between 2,800 and 3,500 square meters. [7] Increased surface area equates to increased absorption of toxic compounds.

Beyond its clinically indicated uses, there’s a growing community of individuals that use activated charcoal for activities ranging from house cleaning to gas reduction in the gastrointestinal tract. Let’s delve further in to the benefits and uses of activated charcoal.

Activated Charcoal Uses

Using activated charcoal to treat symptoms of medicine overdose or poisoning is the most clinically-studied and supported use of this compound. Charcoal biscuits gained popularity in 19th century England to fight gas, stomach, and digestive issues. [8] Limited research is now just beginning to support those claims.

One small study supports the use of daily activated charcoal consumption to lower total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. [9] Outside of the clinical setting activated charcoal people use activated charcoal for numerous purposes including but not limited to the following: [10]

  • Remove of ‘toxins’ from the body
  • Whiten teeth
  • Reduce the intensity of a hangover due to alcohol overconsumption
  • Filter water and remove fluoride
  • Fight aging (due to its claimed ability to trap and eliminate toxins)
  • Decrease or eliminate body odor, acne, rashes, and inflammation due to insect bites
  • Remove mold found around the house when used as a cleaning agent

Those taking activated charcoal daily for general health can find the compound in tablet, granule, powder, liquid, and capsule forms as a standalone ingredient or as a part of a blend of ingredients promoting health and wellness. One company produces capsules providing 280mg of activated charcoal per capsule. The recommendation on the bottle it to “take 2 capsules two or three times daily, 3-4 hours before/after meals or as recommended by your healthcare practitioner.” [11]

It’s critical that you consult with your health care professional before you begin a regimen of daily activated charcoal consumption. The research behind daily use is simply not strong enough given the lack of studies on long-term consumption.

In the medical community activated charcoal is most valuable when the patient receives treatment within one to two hours of ingesting a significant amount of a highly toxic substance, is alert, cooperative, and has an intact and stable airway. [12] If the airway is not intact and stable then the carbon may enter into the lungs, causing serious harm and in some cases death. [13]

Organic compounds and compounds with low water solubility are best absorbed by activated charcoal. [14] The most conventional dosage recommendation is a 10 to 1 ratio of charcoal to drug by weight, but research now suggests a 40 to 1 ratio to be optimal. [15] Activated charcoal should not be used in the event of poisoning due to excessive alkali, strong acid, arsenic, ethylene glycol, iron, boric acid, lithium, petroleum products, or alcohol consumption. [16][17]

Activated charcoal isn’t the Holy Grail of anti-poisoning supplement. Contact the Poison Control Center immediately if you fear you overconsume any chemical or begin experiencing symptoms of poisoning.

While activated charcoal has numerous uses it carries a handful of possible minor and major side effects. The most common minor side effects include dark urine, decreased urine volume, dark or black stools, nausea, and vomiting. The most common major side effects include allergic reaction, abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. [18]

Once again, activated charcoal, especially in moderate or high doses, should be consumed under close supervision by your health care professional, emergency room staff, or Position Control Center.

Activated Charcoal

Activated Charcoal Benefits

Most readers at Tiger Fitness want to learn about the benefits of activated charcoal when consumed daily. Unfortunately, there’s limited scientific evidence supporting daily consumption to treat the issues listed in the section above. However, the research performed thus far appears positive for lowering total and LDL cholesterol, increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and reducing gas.

Seven patients underwent a 15-week study separated in to five phases, each lasting three weeks. The first four phases involved consuming 4, 8, 16, and then 32 grams of charcoal per day. The final phase required patients to consume a bran cereal placebo.

Researchers found that a 32-gram daily intake of activated charcoal can decrease total cholesterol by up to 29% and LDL cholesterol, also known as bad cholesterol, by up to 41%. This LDL reduction contributed to a 141% increase in the ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol. [19] A high HDL to LDL cholesterol ratio indicates high quantities of good cholesterol and low quantities of bad cholesterol.

Another study of seven patients found that a daily activated charcoal intake of 24 grams, split across three doses, for four consecutive weeks can decrease total cholesterol by 25%, LDL cholesterol by 41%, and increase beneficial HDL cholesterol by a modest 8%. [20] Lowering LDL and raising HDL levels decreases your risk for cardiovascular disease.

A third study examining the effects of activated charcoal on cholesterol asked ten patients with exceptionally high cholesterol levels to consume either 16 grams of activated charcoal, 16 grams of cholestyramine (a prescription drug used to treat high cholesterol), 8 grams of activated charcoal and 8 grams of cholestyramine, or bran placebo.

The charcoal-only group decreased total and LDL cholesterol by 23% an 29%, respectively, whereas the cholestyramine-only group decreased these values by 31% and 39%, respectively, compared to placebo. [6] At this point we may assume cholestyramine to be a superior option for lowering cholesterol.

However, the combination of cholestyramine and activated charcoal reduced these values by 30% and 38%, respectively. Similar patterns were seen in the improvement of HDL to LDL cholesterol ratio. [6] These results indicate that activated charcoal has similar, but not as quite pronounced positive effects on cholesterol compared to a common prescription medication. Researchers also found that cholestyramine increase blood triglyceride levels. [6]

High triglyceride levels increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. [12] Activated charcoal may be a cheaper, safer, almost equally effective alternative to popular prescription medications used to lower cholesterol.

To determine the effects of activated charcoal on bloating, gas, and abdominal cramps researched performed a double-blind clinical trial involving 30 subjects in the United States and 69 subjects in India. Researchers provided subjects with either activated charcoal or placebo, asked each to undergo a hydrogen breath test, and measured lactulose content. [13]

The hydrogen breath test provides insight on lactose intolerance as well as irregular bacteria growth in the intestine. [14] High breath test value indicate large amounts of gas in the colon. Subjects consuming activated charcoal significantly reduced their breath test values while also experiencing decreased frequency and severity of bloating and abdominal cramps. [13]

A second study found that 4 grams of activated charcoal prior to a meal comprised of baked beans did not lower hydrogen breath test values nor did it lower reported instances of flatulence. [15] The use of activated charcoal to decrease gas and bloating is mixed and may be dependent on the foods consumed. Regardless, we need requires larger and longer-term studies to gain additional insight on this potential benefit.

Activated charcoal may also have positive effects on preventing or downgrading the severity of diarrhea as well as decreasing the use of antidiarrheal medications in cancer patients taking irinotecan, a powerful chemotherapy drug used to treat colon and rectum cancer. [16]

Unfortunately, these results were based on a small study of 28 subjects and lasted less than one year.

These results are positive and suggest activated charcoal’s ability to alleviate some of the harsh symptoms of colon and rectum cancer as well side effects of chemotherapeutic drugs used to treat these cancers.

Do you have experience taking activated charcoal? Let me know in the comments below.

References

1) Neuvonen, P. J., and K. T. Olkkola. “Oral Activated Charcoal in the Treatment of Intoxications. Role of Single and Repeated Doses.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, Med Toxicol Adverse Drug Exp., Dec. 1988, Accessed Oct. 2016.
2) WHO Model List of Essential Medicines – 18th List. World Health Organization, Oct. 2013, Accessed Oct. 2016.
3) Charcoal, Activated. International Drug Price Indicator Guide, Manager’s Electronic Resource Center (ERC), 2014, Accessed Oct. 2016.
4) Olson, Kent R. “Activated Charcoal for Acute Poisoning: One Toxicologist’s Journey.” Journal of Medical Toxicology 6.2 (2010): 190–198. PMC. Web. Oct. 2016.
5) Stearn, Margaret (2007). Warts and all: straight talking advice on life’s embarrassing problems. London: Murdoch Books. p. 333. ISBN 978-1-921259-84-5. Retrieved 2009-05-03.
6) Neuvonen, P. J., et al. “Activated Charcoal in the Treatment of Hypercholesterolaemia: Dose-response Relationships and Comparison with Cholestyramine.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, Eur J Clin Pharmacol., 1989, Accessed Oct. 2016.
7) Axe, Josh. “Top 10 Activated Charcoal Uses & Benefits.” Dr. Axe, 2015, Accessed Oct. 2016.
8) Nature’s Way, Charcoal, Activated, 280 Mg, 100 Capsules. IHerb – Vitamins, Supplements & Natural Health Products, 2016, Accessed Oct. 2016.
9) Activated Charcoal (By Mouth). PubMed Health – Micromedex Consumer Medication Information, National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2016, Accessed Oct. 2016.
10) Charcoal, Activated Monograph for Professionals. Drugs.com – Prescription Drug Information, Interactions & Side Effects, Oct. 2016, www.drugs.com/monograph/charcoal-activated.html. Accessed Oct. 2016.
11) Kuusisto, P. “Effect of Activated Charcoal on Hypercholesterolaemia.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, Lancet, Aug. 1986, Accessed 16 Aug. 1986.
12) Triglycerides: Why Do They Matter? Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2016, Accessed Oct. 2016.
13) Jain, N. K., et al. “Efficacy of Activated Charcoal in Reducing Intestinal Gas: a Double-blind Clinical Trial.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, Am J Gastroenterol, July 1986, Accessed Oct. 2016.
14) Hydrogen Breath Test. Temple Digestive Disease Center, Temple University Health System, 2016, Accessed Oct. 2016.
15) Potter, T., et al. “Activated Charcoal: in Vivo and in Vitro Studies of Effect on Gas Formation.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, Gastroenterology, Mar. 1985, Accessed Oct. 2016.
16) Michael, M., et al. “Phase II Study of Activated Charcoal to Prevent Irinotecan-induced Diarrhea.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, J Clin Oncol, Nov. 2004, Accessed Oct. 2016.
17) “Charcoal, Activated Monograph for Professionals – Drugs.com.” Drugs.com | Prescription Drug Information, Interactions & Side Effects, www.drugs.com/monograph/charcoal-activated.html.
18) “Activated Charcoal (By Mouth) – National Library of Medicine.” PubMed Health, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0008816/?report=details.
19) “Activated Charcoal in the Treatment of Hypercholesterolaemia: Dose-response Relationships and Comparison with Cholestyramine. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2612535.
20) “Effect of Activated Charcoal on Hypercholesterolaemia. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2874369.

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Name: Nick Ludlow

Bio: When it comes to fitness I enjoy reading about historic weight lifters, non-conventional weightlifting approaches, nutritional protocols, and the science behind supplements.