Activated charcoal is a fine, black powder with an extremely high surface area, making it ideal for adsorbing, or trapping, toxins. Activated charcoal can be made from various carbon sources, including coconuts husks, hardwood, or peat. It is available as capsules, loose powder, tablets, or liquid.
In the emergency room setting, activated charcoal is used orally to treat certain kinds of poisoning, especially within the first hour. Charcoal works by soaking up the toxic compound so that the poison is not absorbed from the intestinal tract into the blood circulation. The charcoal, along with any toxins that are stuck to it, is eliminated in the stool. The dose to treat emergency poisoning in an adult is 25-100g of activated charcoal.
Activated charcoal is used in the non-emergency setting to detox ingested impurities at a much lower dose of about 1g after a meal. It can be used to help with digestion for foods that cause symptoms such as cramping, diarrhea, or nausea. One study showed that activated charcoal can reduce bloating and gas in the lower intestines, reducing cramping. Activated charcoal can be useful in food poisoning, especially if taken within 30min to 1 hour.
Activated charcoal carries a negative charge, so it attracts heavy metals and other toxins that are positively charged. Activated charcoal in a facial soap or facial mask can remove impurities and toxins from the skin, commonly used to treat acne or brighten dull skin. Activated charcoal can stain your clothing or carpet, but if used to brush your teeth, it actually whitens them by pulling out color impurities in teeth. Teeth should be rinsed well with water after brushing with charcoal powder.
Activated charcoal has anecdotally been used for hangover prevention, although there are no scientific studies. The use for hangover prevention is typically 1 capsule prior to each alcoholic drink, and 1 glass of water right after the alcoholic drink. Excessive alcohol use is dangerous, and even potentially deadly, whether or not charcoal is used.
Safety concerns for activated charcoal include constipation or vomiting if too high a dose is used, intestinal obstruction if patient has a gut motility issue, temporary dark stools, corneal abrasion if it gets in eyes, and respiratory distress if it gets inhaled into the lungs. If you are taking prescription medications, there is a chance that they will be less effective if they are adsorbed and eliminated with the charcoal. Therefore, you should wait at least 2 hours after taking your prescription medication before you take activated charcoal. Activated charcoal should not be used concurrently with a laxative due to risk of electrolyte and fluid imbalance. If you are pregnant, you should ask your doctor before using activated charcoal.
Activated charcoal is not effective for low molecular weight compounds like cyanide, iron, ethanol, lithium, or methanol. Activated charcoal should not be used for caustic ingestions, such as cleaning agents, acids, or batteries. Contact your local poison control center if caustic ingestion is suspected.
In summary, the low dose of non-prescription activated charcoal available over the counter is safe for most people to use on an intermittent basis as part of their detox protocol. For best results, find a supplement that states the carbon source and avoid any extra additives.
Dr. Boston helps patients develop personalized detox protocols at the Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine located at 520 Arizona Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90401. www.akashacenter.com (310)-451-8880.