What is ‘activated charcoal’?

No, activated charcoal is not the same stuff used to heat the backyard grill!

Activated charcoal is among one of the biggest natural health crazes – and for a good reason. Also called activated carbon or active charcoal, it is fine black powder made from bits of bone char, coconut shells, coal, olive pits, peat, petroleum coke or sawdust.

The charcoal undergoes a very high-temperature heating process which alters the coal’s internal structure. Molecular changes in the charcoal result in a product that is more porous and absorbent.

Why do people use activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal is incredibly absorbent; a property that allows it to trap toxins and chemicals from damaging the body. As the body does not absorb activated charcoal, it effectively traps toxins and gases, which exit the body as feces.

Because of its toxin-binding properties, activated charcoal has numerous medical uses. Perhaps it’s most well-known application is as a poison antidote; treating prescription drug overdoses, as well as overdoses of over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen, aspirin, and sedatives.

Here are 7 other reasons to try activated charcoal

1. Teeth Whitener/Oral Health

Activated charcoal whitens teeth and promotes oral health by changing the acidity levels (pH) in the mouth. The product also freshens breath while preventing cavities and gum disease.

It works to whiten teeth by absorbing bacteria and plaque that stain teeth. Consuming certain foods and beverages, including berries, coffee, tea, and wine, can also stain the teeth.

teeth whitening

2. Relieves gas and bloating

In a study published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, scientists conducted a double-blind experiment on two population groups in the United States and India. (The two countries were chosen solely for the fact food differences vary considerably.)

Measuring breath hydrogen levels to measure amounts of gas produced in the colon, “activated charcoal significantly reduced breath hydrogen levels in both groups.” The scientists conclude that abdominal cramps and bloating are both significantly reduced by activated charcoal.

3. May help lower blood alcohol levels

Because of its extraordinary absorbent properties, activated charcoal can help eliminate toxins that contribute to alcohol poisoning. Further, some studies show that when someone consumes the charcoal immediately before drinking, it helps to regulate the body’s blood-alcohol levels.

Active charcoal is so efficient in relieving the physical effects of alcohol that it is often the first used when a person is unconscious or showing signs of acute poisoning.

4. Water filtration

Activated charcoal helps remove impurities in water. Some substances that active charcoal efficiently neutralize include chlorine, sediment, volatile and organic compounds. (It doesn’t adequately remove minerals, salts or dissolved inorganic compounds.)

Activated charcoal may also improve the taste and smell of water. Per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “Activated carbon is commonly used to absorb natural organic compounds, taste and odor compounds, and synthetic organic chemicals in drink water treatment … (it) is an effective absorbent because it is a highly porous material and provides a large surface area.”

5. May reduce cholesterol levels

Activated charcoal appears to be effective in binding cholesterol within the gut and preventing absorption. In one study of patients diagnosed with high cholesterol, researchers note that plasma concentrations of total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol fell by 25% and 41%, respectively. HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels increased by 8%.

A second study reduced LDL cholesterol by 29-41% in those with high cholesterol levels.

6. May promote kidney health

In a study published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, researchers concluded that activated charcoal was successful in removing urinary toxins in rats. Additionally, rats with induced chronic renal failure (CRF) showed improvements in kidney health following an activated charcoal regimen.

A second study, published in the Saudi Journal of Kidney Diseases and Transplantation, found that combining an oral activated charcoal treatment with a low-protein diet improved end-stage renal disease symptoms.

7. Reduces symptoms of Fish Odor Syndrome

A genetic condition known as trimethylaminuria (TMAU), or fish odor syndrome, causes the body to accumulate a fishy-smelling substance called trimethylamine (TMA).

Whereas healthy individuals convert TMA into a different chemical before excreting it via urination, people with TMAU do not. As a result, TMA builds up in the body, with only minimal amounts expelled in urine.

In a study published in the journal Life Sciences, researchers found that “the daily intake of charcoal and/or copper chlorophyllin may be of significant use in improving the quality of life of individuals suffering from TMAU.”

Final Thoughts on Activated Charcoal:

Many health claims surrounding activated charcoal are anecdotal and require additional research. You can try it as a supplemental, not a standalone, alternative treatment.

Although activated charcoal is safe for most individuals, certain medical conditions may inhibit it’s usefulness or produce undesirable side effects. Medical conditions that may cause complications include intestinal blockages, abdominal bleeding, poor digestion, or recovery from surgery. Activated charcoal may disrupt the absorption of medications, nutrients, and supplements.

When purchasing activated charcoal, make sure to look for fine, highly purified products. Coconut charcoal is a favorite among users because of its ease of digestion and very few side effects. As with any medication or supplement, please make sure to follow dosage recommendations carefully.