Here at ALOHA, we take pride in our health, keeping our collective finger on the pulse of all the buzzy trends in the world of wellness, so when we hear about a food or supplement that has been touted as some sort of magical substance with medicinal properties, we obsess about it, research it, and write about it, all for the sake of empowering you with more knowlege… case in point: Activated charcoal.
A special form of carbon, made from carbon-containing materials like coal or wood, it becomes “activated” when heated at extremely high temperatures (say, 600–900º C) without any oxygen present. Next it is exposed to an activating agent (gas, typically argon and nitrogen), and then heated again (somewhere between 600–1200º C), which makes the charcoal extremely porous, greatly expanding its surface area. To put into perspective just how much it’s surface area expands, approximately 1 gram of activated charcoal yields about a tenth of the size of a football field. (Important to note here that activated charcoal and the charcoal you would use for your grill are not the same.)
Recent studies suggest that using activated charcoal is the single most effective treatment against certain types of poisoning as well as overdoses, better than stomach pumping and other physical means of gastric emptying. It is used in emergency centers around the world because it directly adsorbs the toxic substance in the gastrointestinal tract, keeping it from being absorbed by the gut or into the bloodstream. It’s important to note here that absorption works like a sponge soaking up a liquid, integrating the liquid into the sponge (which is how nutrients and chemicals, toxic or otherwise, enter the bloodstream); adsorption occurs when elements bind to the surface of the activated charcoal. Activated charcoal is made up of negatively charged ions so it works like a magnet attracting the positive-charged elements in heavy toxins, allowing the poison to pass through and exit the body via a bowel movement.
While it’s recommended to have activated charcoal in the home in case of an accidental ingestion of poison—children/babies and pets are most susceptible—so that it can be taken immediately (it works best the sooner it is taken after consuming something toxic), it is advised to call Poison Control as well. (Follow this link to see what types of poison it is not effective against.)
Aside from helping to treat poison, activated charcoal is also used for water filtration as it can remove most waste and toxins that are not water-soluble (it is not effective if water-soluble toxins like sodium fluoride, nitrites, and nitrates are present). It’s also been thought to help lower cholesterol levels, treat cholestasis (reduced bile flow) in pregnant women, as well as prevent hangovers, but more research is needed.
Used orally, it can help to not only whiten your teeth, but also change the pH in your mouth, helping to prevent against cavities, bad breath, and gum disease. Dip a wet toothbrush into powdered activated charcoal and brush teeth as you normally would, rinse, and spit out until the water is clear (it could take a couple of swigs). Just be mindful that activated charcoal does stain, so protect countertops and clothing before attempting. Brush with activated charcoal up to 2 to 3 times a week, but if teeth become sensitive to it stop use. If you’ve have any teeth work like caps, crowns, or porcelain veneers, be advised that the charcoal could stain them.
It is taken in capsule or powder form in mold cleanses (surprisingly, having mold in our systems could cause depression, decreased brain function, headaches, impair the immune system, kidney or liver failure, and heart disease) or detoxes 1 to 3 times a day. It is not recommended to use daily like a vitamin, only as needed or instructed. If you are taking activated charcoal, you want to be sure to triple the recommended amount of water you take in per day (daily recommendation is 8 glasses/90 ounces, so 24 glasses/about 280 ounces of water when taking activated charcoal) to keep from getting constipated.
The jury is still out on whether or not it is effective in treating gas: Some doctors believe that, if taken in capsule form, it can help while others argue that it doesn’t. But it is effectively used topically to clean wounds and in pore treatments and exfoliating scrubs, and has been found to help treat parasitic infections for those with Lyme disease.
For whatever reason you might use activated charcoal, know that side effects like black tongue, black stool, and constipation are normal. But if you experience any vomiting or diarrhea it’s advised to call a doctor immediately.