The Many Internal and External Uses of ‘Activated Charcoal’

Once an extremely popular health trend, it seems that activated charcoal has become just a blip on the radar in recent years, in stark contrast to the previous extraordinary rise in popularity contributing to it being used in ice cream, toothpaste, skin care products and much more!

The striking dark black pigment helped promote the supplement through social media, making for aesthetically pleasing photos on Instagram when used in deserts, face masks, cleansers and detox drinks. 

But what happened to the product that seemed to be everywhere only a moment ago? 

Activated charcoal is essentially carbon material, often made from heating carbon-dense materials like coconut shells, bamboo, and wood to extremely high temperatures. This is done to remove all other potentially volatile contents from the material (the combustion of these is what produces the flame you see when you burn wood), and any water content. 

The charcoal that is produced from this process is then heated with a gas – often a steam (or nitrogen for example) and this causes the surface area to increase from the presence of many small ‘pores’ that are created by this process. This process also further removes any impurities. This increases the ‘adsorption’ properties of the charcoal by astronomically expanding the surface area and enhancing the porous nature of the charcoal. 

It can then be used to rid the body of poisons, toxicants, acute drug overdoses, etc. when these substances bind to the charcoal powder or capsule after ingesting it. 

This production process should not dissuade you from trying out activated charcoal – be it in your beauty routine, oral hygiene practices, or supplementally. Activated charcoal (or carbon) has been used since the 1800’s to remove poison and toxicants from the body – prior to that, the Egyptians used this method of producing activated carbon to prevent mold growth with their building and transport material. It was also used to smelt ore to manufacture bronze since it burns better than wood. Since then, it has been used in air purifiers as a filtration method, to purify water, as chemical purification in the industrial industry, widely in the medical industry since the 1800’s – and even to remove impurities in alcohol production. 

To this day, it is used in emergency departments on a daily basis as a treatment for drug overdoses, accidental chemical ingestion, or cases of poisoning. 

The only advice of caution is for those taking medications for pre-existing health conditions or concerns. Due to the nature of activated charcoal’s binding properties, it may interact with the effectiveness of these medications. 

As activated charcoal can bind to these medications and excrete them from your system faster along with preventing proper absorption, it is always advised to take any activated charcoal product (if you are doing so internally) at least 2-4 hours away from any medication you’re taking. 

This even includes herbal supplements, vitamins and minerals, as well as birth control pills, antidepressants, painkillers or any OTC medication. 

The reason to use caution with activated charcoal internally is also the exact same reason why activated charcoal is used medicinally to prevent the severe consequences of drug overdoses, as well as binding to and removing poison in the case of accidental ingestion. Now, because activated charcoal is great at adsorption (different from absorption – meaning ‘to bind to,’ rather than ‘to absorb’), this means the molecules of other substances in the body bind to that of the activated charcoal. This is why activated charcoal is powerful as a detoxifier, but must also be used with caution. 

Kidney health

Activated charcoal might be able to help the function of the kidney by sifting out undigested toxins and drugs. Activated charcoal appears to be particularly acute at eliminating the toxins resulting from urea, which is the main unwanted spinoff of protein digestion. The healthy kidneys are generally well enough equipped to filter your body without any more help, however, in those compromised cases or those recovering from infection or health concerns, activated charcoal might help improve the kidney function and decrease the gastrointestinal damage and the inflammation in those with chronic kidney disease. According to a 2014 study, rats with chronic renal failure were fed mixtures which includes 20% of the activated charcoal and they experienced improved kidney function and a decreased rate of kidney inflammation and damage. 

Intestinal gas, Bloating, and Digestive Upset

Activated charcoal powder might help rid people of intestinal gas and bloating, following a meal. Liquids and gases stuck in the intestine might easily pass through the millions of tiny holes in activated charcoal and this process may neutralize them. According to a 2012 study, a smaller sample of people with a past history of intestinal gas and bloating in the intestines, took 448 mg of the activated charcoal, 3 times a day, for 2 days before having intestinal ultrasound examinations. They even consumed another 672 mg on the morning of the exam. The study indicated that medical examiners saw less obstruction in those that consumed the activated charcoal, and the participants reported less digestive upset, bloating, and intestinal gas. According to a 2017 study, people who consumed 45 mg of simethicone and 140mg of the activated charcoal, 3 times daily, for the period of 10 days all described a dramatic decrease in abdominal pain with no ill side effects.

Water Filtration

People have long since used activated charcoal as a natural water filter – its naturally ability to adsorb toxicants and impurities is extremely useful when it comes to purifying substances. As well, it is naturally antibacterial! It can interact and absorb a variety of toxins, drug remnants, viruses, bacteria, fungi and chemicals that may contaminate, pollute or even originate in the source of the water.

It was also researched according to the study that water filtration systems which used carbon was removed as much as 100 percent of the fluoride in 32 unfiltered water examples after 6 months of installation. Many conventional water filters (and air purifiers) use an activated charcoal filter to capture heavy metals, dust, impurities, and chemicals. 

Cholesterol Levels

Activated charcoal might help to lower cholesterol levels in the blood due to its ability to bind to (adsorb) cholesterol and cholesterol-containing bile acids in the intestines.

According to a study, consuming 24 g of the activated charcoal a day for 4 weeks lowered total cholesterol by 25% and “bad,” or LDL, cholesterol by 25%. HDL cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol levels even increased by 8%. In another study, consuming 4-32 g of the activated charcoal regularly assisted in reducing the total and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 29-41% in participants with high cholesterol levels. 

“Cleansing and Detox”

While a lot of people will state that activated charcoal ‘does nothing’ for cosmetic purposes or concerns (or oral health) – and its only use is internally, there does seem to be some benefit to incorporating charcoal into beauty and personal care items. Due to its extremely porous nature and high surface area, it can effectively remove dead skin cells and debris when using it in exfoliators or cleansers. What about for teeth? It seems that charcoal doesn’t have any immediate health benefits with regard to oral health, but it can help remove staining and the presence of plaque – albeit, there is a word of caution to use it sparingly, as it can be a bit abrasive to the natural tooth enamel. 

Now, for internal use with activated charcoal and ‘detoxing,’ it is important to ensure you’re drinking an adequate amount of water. As activated charcoal can bind to minerals, it is important to watch your electrolytes and liquid intake while supplementing with activated charcoal. It is also recommended to use activated charcoal that is food grade and derived from coconut shells. If you are consuming large or continuous doses of activated charcoal, it is important to speak to a medical professional, as it can cause digestive blockages or lead to dehydration.

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