Activated Charcoal: Uses, Consumption, Preparation & Side Effects

The modern health magnet or activated charcoal has become the ultimate answer to the contemporary health-conscious society. Unlike the olden days, the application of activated charcoal is not merely limited to dental hygiene but extends to the refreshing charcoal face masks to hangover-free cocktails. The medicinal property of activated charcoal has cinched it a clear-cut mark in the beauty and healthcare sphere.

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Varying from pills to powder, activated charcoal has become the "it" ingredient in Chinese medicine and Ayurveda which is actively buttressed by charcoal's dominant alkalising detoxification properties and purported health benefits. Activated charcoal's introduction into the health scene with its cleansing and refreshing properties claimed its place in the detox trends of the 21st century. The advantages of activated charcoal are limitless and infinite. From being used in dental hygiene to mental health, activated charcoal looks like it is here to stay.

What Is Activated Charcoal?

Immediately sounding like a state-of-the-art form of regular charcoal, activated charcoal is made from the slow burning of wood, coconut shells or peat. The carbon-containing materials are heated at high temperatures to make activated charcoal which is then oxidised. The oxidation process known as "activation" is the catalyst activating the normal charcoal to become "activated charcoal".

The oxidation process results in activated charcoal being non-polar and highly porous. The odourless, black substance's surface is covered in small holes. Activated charcoal is sponge-like in nature, which accords to its application in filtering products such as water filters.

Often confused with that of normal charcoal which is found in burnt pieces of food or bricks of charcoal, production of activated charcoal involves the heating of carbon-rich materials at a very high temperature. At the high temperatures, activated charcoal alters its internal structure thereby resulting in the reduction of the pore sizes and expansion of its surface area. The pores act as the tool 'trapping' the toxins and chemicals. In the current market, activated charcoal is found in various forms such as pill, powder, tablets[1] or capsules.

Activated charcoal and its applications are extensive. We are all aware of activated charcoal and its benefits on our skin, but studies have revealed it to have various other properties with detoxification being the primary and central one.

The magnetic nature of activated charcoal which attracts the toxins and release from the body has become the global remedy for general detoxification, cardiovascular health, digestive health, gas[2]  and bloating and anti-ageing. The inherent need of the modern day society to be inevitably healthy plays a major role, wherein activated charcoal has become an ingredient even in fast foods such as pizzas, lattes and even ice creams. Well, let's get into exploring how, when and where to use the 'drug sponge'.

What Are The Uses Of Activated Charcoal?

Ranging from being an antidote for poisoning to body cleansing, activated charcoal is used for teeth whitening, disinfecting and even in the treatment of Lyme disease. From normal consumers to medical practitioners, activated charcoal's uses extend to various fields. Although most of the information is supported by scientific evidence, there are cases of uncertainty. Nevertheless, let's get to know more about the different applications of activated charcoal.

1. For emergency poison treatment

The toxin-binding properties of activated charcoal make it a fundamental element to the medical field. One of the most critical applications of activated charcoal is in the cases of poisoning. The binding property of the carbon aids in reducing the [3] effect of poisoning. It can be used in cases of prescription and over-the-counter medication[4]  overdoses.

Studies on the impact of activated charcoal have pointed out that the consumption of 50-100 g within five minutes of drug ingestion, can aid in reducing the level of drug absorption[5]  by 74%. Consumption with a certain period of time is required that is, it is not beneficial to consume activated charcoal after 2 or more hours of poisoning.

However, please be aware that activated charcoal is not entirely applicable in cases of heavy metal, potassium, iron, lithium, acid or alkali, and alcohol[6] poisonings.

2. For kidney health & improvement

The absorbing nature of activated charcoal may aid in promoting your kidney function. By reducing the number of waste to be filtered, activated charcoal reduces your kidney's filtering task. This is beneficial to patients suffering from patients suffering from chronic kidney disease, as they face difficulty in ease of removing waste such as urea and other toxins from the body.

Activated charcoal binds the toxins and waste, which will be excreted[7]  through faeces. One of the studies revealed the impact of activated charcoal supplements on lowering the urea blood level in patients diagnosed with end-stage[8]  kidney disease.

3. For treating fish odour syndrome

Fish odour syndrome or trimethylaminuria (TMAU) is a genetic condition where an individual suffers from the secretion of a compound, that has an odour similar to that of a rotting fish. This is caused due to mutations in your FMO3 genes and other causes such as an aberrant increase in the growth of trimethylamine producing bacteria or due to excess of protein in your daily[9] diets. Activated charcoal helps reduce the TMA concentration in the body [10] .

4. To alleviate bloating and gas

Activated charcoal helps reduce the formation of gas and stop the uneasy feeling caused due to bloating. The binding property of activated charcoal binds the gas accumulating byproducts in food, and aids ceasing the discomfort caused. A study conducted in the American Journal of Gastroenterology proves the application of activated charcoal[11]  in reducing gas and bloating.

9 Uses Of Activated Charcoal

5. For teeth whitening

The plaque absorbing nature of activated charcoal is said to play the central role in this process. We all suffer, at least occasionally from the horrid case of yellow teeth. The toxin-absorbing property of activated charcoal is said to have antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal as well as detoxifying qualities.

Charcoal being used as a teeth whitener is not new, certain parts in South Asia and Africa use charcoal powder as an indigenous[12] tooth cleaning method. Toothpastes incorporated with activated charcoal helps remove the plaque residues, although there are no scientific explanations [13] to support the claim.

6. For mould cleansing

You may have seen mould, a type of fungus that is mostly seen growing on a loaf of bread or a bun. But what you may not know is that mould can grow on your body, which is described [14]  as being 'toxic'. A mould infestation can cause liver and kidney failure, heart diseases, suppress cognitive functioning and immune system. The mould toxins can induce headaches, severe respiratory issues and eye irritation.

Being exposed to conditions such as moist walls, small leaks and poor ventilation can cause mould growth. By applying activated charcoal as a cleansing component [15] , you can not only help prevent the onset of health problems but also the growth of mould.

7. For skin cleansing

Activated charcoal has been proven to have skin cleansing abilities. The absorbent nature of activated charcoal attracts the microparticles such as dust, toxins, chemicals, bacteria, dust etc., stuck to the surface of your skin.

The application of activated charcoal is not limited to this alone, as it can be applied for treating snake and spider bites, and poison ivy rashes. By absorbing the poison from the bitten or affected area[16] , activated charcoal quickly tends to the wound.

8. For digestive cleansing

Activated charcoal helps promote a healthy digestive system by cleaning your digestive tract off the toxins and wastes. By removing the allergy-causing and oxidative damage causing toxins, it improves your immune system as well. The removal of toxins helps in reducing joint pains and increasing energy levels [17] and cognitive function.

Activated charcoal removes the ingested chemicals such as chemicals in drinking water, pesticides on vegetables and fruits, mould etc. and cleanses the digestive tract routinely to maintain your overall health.

9. To reduce high cholesterol

Researches reveal that activated charcoal reduces the level of bad cholesterol in your body and increases the good cholesterol. A study analysing [18] the impact of activated charcoal on the level of cholesterol revealed that it helped increase the level of HDL cholesterol by 8% and reduced LDL cholesterol by 41%.

How Can Activated Charcoal Detox Your Body?

From Chinese medical practitioners to Ayurvedic healers, activated charcoal has been in use for more than 10,000 years. Here and now, we are all aware of activated charcoal and its benefits on our skin, and now, it is being re-introduced as the ultimate answer for body[19]  detoxification.

The magnetic nature of activated charcoal which attracts the toxins and release them from the body has become the global remedy for general detoxification, cardiovascular health, digestive health, gas and bloating and anti-ageing.

With the commercial consumption of activated charcoal constantly increasing, there is a parallel increase in the production of activated charcoal pills and capsules which are now available in almost every department stores and health and care stores around the globe. Given its surfeit of advantages and benefits, studies and researchers have taken into exploring if in fact activated charcoal does detoxify your body.

The binding property of activated charcoal makes it a prime ingredient of detoxification processes. Regular use of activated charcoal can help you feeling refreshed and renewed, as your body is free of toxins and wastes. Considered to be a global remedy for body detoxification, activated charcoal's role in body detoxification [20]  is constrained to limited researches.

The nature's magnet is claimed to have a direct and positive impact on your energy, skin and body. We are constantly told about the detoxifying properties of activated charcoal through all most every possible outlet. The inherent need of the modern day society to be inevitably healthy plays a major role, wherein activated charcoal has become an ingredient even in fast foods such as pizzas, lattes and even ice creams.

Anyhow, it cannot be innately pointed out that using activated charcoal is the ultimate answer for body detoxification. There are two sides to the story - where one strongly backing the detoxification nature of activated charcoal [21]  and the other side claiming otherwise.

The porous and absorbent nature of activated charcoal is the only reason behind the hype. The consumption of activated charcoal does help detox your body but along with the absorption of the toxins, studies have revealed that it flushes out the essential nutrients and even medications required for the human body.

Does activated charcoal detoxify your body? Yes, it does. How? By absorbing and washing out the toxins present in your body. Yet, with the aforementioned facts, one cannot suggest that activated charcoal is impotent or ineffective.

How To Make Activated Charcoal?

Activated charcoal can be made from a variety of materials that are carbon-rich. Such as coal, peat, wood, agricultural residues and coconut shells. The absorption nature and the pores of is dependent on the type of raw materials you use to make activated charcoal[22] , as well as the method adopted for the activation of charcoal. Below are the instructions to be followed while making activated charcoal out of coconut shells.

  • Choose any number of coconut shells. Remove the fibre and wash it. Let it dry completely.
  • Place the dry and clean coconut shells in a burning sink, and bring the temperature to 575 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Let it burn for at least 4 hours until it turns to ash.
  • Bring the ash out of the burning sink and place it in a clean pail (plastic). Add CaCl2 or ZnCl2 25% chemical solution and soak the ash completely.
  • Let the ash soak in the chemical for one full day - which will transform the ash into activated charcoal.
  • Take the charcoal and place it on a draining tray. Wash it thoroughly with distilled water to be rid of the chemical solution traces. Let the water drain for at least one hour.
  • Place the charcoal in a preheated oven of 215 degrees Fahrenheit, bake it for 3 hours.
  • Once done, take the charcoal and crush it into a fine powder using a hammer or an industrial blender.
  • You can store the activated charcoal in ziploc bags.

When To Take Activated Charcoal?

Consumption of activated charcoal is not limited to any specific time of the day. You can take activated charcoal any time of the day. In the case of meals, you can take it before or after meals. Also, if you are feeling a bit tired or lack energy due to the excess of toxins and environmental pollutants, you can take activated charcoal for an energy boost.

During travel, it is advisable to take activated charcoal as it will help in flushing the toxins out of your system.

Make sure that you store the activated charcoal (capsules, pills or powder) in a well-sealed bottle or ziploc to avoid any carbon stains.

What Are The Side Effects Of Activated Charcoal?

Even though there are plenty of benefits and uses for activated charcoal in your daily activities, it does accede towards brunts. The incorrect linking of activated charcoal in medicinal detoxification is yet to be understood by the masses.

The lack of scientific studies and proof on the actual impact of activated charcoal on the human body is the answer to the confused role of the "it" ingredient. The application of activated charcoal to your "detox program" is more like an extra addition that does nothing nor contributes to the work that is already being done by your kidney and liver.

The alleged role of activated charcoal in the "detox program" under the realistic light is that by absorbing the toxins out of your system [23] , the "it" component absorbs the necessary nutrients along with it. The activated charcoal incorporated in the food items loot your food out of its nutritional value, therefore resulting in wasteful consumption of food.

Some of the most common side effects of activated charcoal are

  • diarrhoea
  • stomach swelling or pain
  • vomiting
  • constipation
  • black stools [24]
  • dehydration
  • regurgitation into the lungs.

Precautions While Using Activated Charcoal

You must avoid using activated charcoal if

  • you have digestion problems such as blockages in the intestine or poor movements of food through the intestines.
  • you have undergone any surgery recently. 
  • you have intestinal tears or holes.
  • you are prone to haemorrhaging.
  • you have low fluids levels in your body or if you are dehydrated.

Activated Charcoal During Pregnancy - Is It Safe?

Falling under FDA's Pregnancy Category C, the consumption of activated charcoal during pregnancy have been proven to cause harm to the foetus. Although the study has only been confirmed in the case of animals, it is advisable to avoid taking activated charcoal during pregnancy as well as during the time of breastfeeding.

It is best to avoid activated charcoal due to the onset of constipation, intense nausea, gastrointestinal[25]  issues. Consult with your health care provider before consuming activated charcoal during the period of your pregnancy and feeding.

To Conclude...

All the aforesaid does not point out that activated charcoal must be entirely eliminated from your lifestyle as it is not necessarily harmful to your body but, if you are solely invested in "detox programs", it is best and advisable to move on and adopt other detox diets in the likes of simple fruit and veggie detox, smoothie cleanse, sugar detox, or hypo-allergenic detox.

But fret not, you can still incorporate your favourite "it" material in your daily lifestyle through activated charcoal for teeth whitening, activated charcoal masks, activated charcoal shampoos, charcoal deodorants or water purifiers.

View Article References
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