Are You Using Activated Charcoal? What You Need to Know

Health Writer
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Using activated charcoal was a big trend in 2017 and it does not appear to be slowing down. Here’s the lowdown on its use, associated dangers, and health implications.

Activated charcoal is an incredibly effective clinical treatment for certain poisoning or medication-overdose situations. It’s used in water filtration because it binds other substances onto its surface. When ingested (mixed with water or juice), activated charcoal absorbs drugs in your gut so that the drugs are not further absorbed by your body. Sometimes the activated charcoal contains sorbitol which acts as a laxative as well, helping with quick passage through the digestive tract, decreasing the amount of drug that’s absorbed. Current studies suggest that administering activated charcoal in the emergency room offers optimal results if the patient receives the dose within an hour of the overdose.

If you buy activated charcoal over-the-counter (OTC), beware that all OTC charcoal products are not activated, which means they are less effective. Activated charcoal has been heated to increase its adsorptive powers. Typically, OTC activated charcoal is sold in 250 mg tablets. Inky black foods have also become popular recently — coal-black soft serve iced cream, dark pizza crust, black hamburger buns and even “grey lattes,” are sweeping the nation’s food culture scene. Consumers are also using activated charcoal as a detox agent sometimes on a daily basis (added to tea or smoothies). The claims being made by various food outlets include: “Charcoal is a natural purifier and aids in digestion.” Let’s take a closer look at OTC activated charcoal in reference to certain conditions, as well as in the context of general daily use.

The claims: Activated charcoal can whiten teeth, offer safe detox, cure the effects of drinking too much, aid in digestion (remove bloat and gas), and help limit diarrhea. Let’s get to the bottom of these claims.

Whitening teeth

There’s no solid science to support the claim that activated charcoal is effective or safe to use for this purpose. It’s assumed that because it “absorbs” it can strip stains from your teeth. It is known to be abrasive.

Bottom line: The jury is out on this one and it may actually degrade your tooth enamel if used on a regular basis. Use an American Dental Association-approved toothpaste that offers whitening.

Medication overdose

Used in the emergency room this can be an effective way to combat an overdose of certain drugs by limiting their absorption from the gut into the bloodstream. There have been some problems reported with this approach, namely aspiration of the activated charcoal mix into the respiratory system. It’s important to note that if you choose to use it daily for “personal detox,” you may interfere with the absorption of your vitamins or other important medications that you need to take. It can also interfere with birth control pills.

Bottom line: There are a few issues with “aspiration” of activated charcoal in the literature that suggest possibility of a significant negative outcome including Adult respiratory distress syndrome. In the hands of experts, it is among several overdose treatment options. Day-to-day use, however, is not so smart.

Gastrointestinal complaints (bloat and flatulence)

Assuming that the bloat or gas issue is not connected to a more serious condition like ascites, malabsorption, or an obstruction, some people believe that activated charcoal can help to alleviate bloat. From a medicine and research perspective, it would be better to first try dietary modifications like limiting sugar and sorbitol, limiting fat, controlling consumption of carbonated drinks, and trying a trial without wheat-based foods, in case you have gluten sensitivity. Intermittent and careful use of activated charcoal can be helpful when bloat is instigated by a single meal that is gas-provoking, but should not become a regular habit.

Bottom line: As a “sometimes” gas alleviator, use of activated charcoal may be safe and effective but discuss its use and especially its timing with your healthcare provider (to avoid interaction/interference with medications and supplements that you are currently taking).

To treat high cholesterol

Though it shows up as a possible treatment for elevated cholesterol because it has the potential to bind to cholesterol-containing bile acids in the gut, most of the studies done on activated charcoal date back to the 1980s and none were large, double-blind studies. In the review of studies it appeared that there was a dose-related response. There was also a small boost to high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol).

Bottom line: There are far better options for treating elevated cholesterol, namely diet and exercise. Use of fiber supplements and niacin are also more conservative treatment approaches to nudging low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) lower. This is a case of “check with your doctor” to discuss a program to address elevated cholesterol, which may have to include a statin medication.

Skin treatment (acne) and hangover

Topical activated charcoal has been touted as a skin fix for acne, and it’s also been circulated as a hangover cure. Some people have even tried taking it before a night of expected “heavy drinking,” in order to preempt a hangover. In both cases there is only anecdotal evidence at best.

Bottom line: If you want to slather some activated charcoal powder mixed with water on a zit, that’s one thing. Ongoing acne issues should be handled by a dermatologist who can review risk factors and treatment options. A once-in-awhile use of activated charcoal may be OK to handle a night of heavy drinking, but consideration of any ongoing health issues and medications that you take has to be factored in.

Final comment

Use of activated charcoal has been linked to bowel blockage or holes, and can worsen variegate porphyria. Constipation and dark, tarry stools have also been reported with more than occasional use. It can also instigate nausea and vomiting if consumed in a large quantity or with repeated doses. The use of this product requires a strong “buyer beware” caution.

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