What Is It?
Poison control centers often recommend activated charcoal to treat accidental poisonings, making it a useful supplement to keep in the home. Activated charcoal is made from organic materials such as wood pulp and then treated to further enhance its absorptive powers. Once ingested, it binds with certain chemicals in the digestive tract, preventing them from being absorbed into your system and causing harm.
Activated charcoal has also been used–in far smaller doses than what’s recommended for poisonings–to treat such digestive complaints as intestinal gas (flatulence), diarrhea, and stomach ulcer pain. There is good evidence to support some of these uses. A small study published in 1986, for example, showed that people who took activated charcoal experienced less gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort after eating than they did when they took a placebo or an over-the-counter anti-flatulence medication.
Some nutritionally oriented doctors contend that the absorption abilities of charcoal can help prevent fats from entering the bloodstream, thus lowering cholesterol levels and reducing the risk for heart disease. There are also claims that activated charcoal can rid the body of environmental toxins. To date, there’s little evidence that the charcoal is effective or safe for these uses, however.
Activated charcoal comes in pill and powder form. If you opt for the powder, mix it with a tall glass of water and drink it through a straw to avoid staining your teeth. (If your tongue and teeth are blackened by the charcoal, quickly brush your teeth and rinse; it should come right off.) Avoid taking activated charcoal with milk or other dairy products because they may lessen its effectiveness.
For flatulence, take 500 mg of activated charcoal after meals and every two hours as needed; take care not to ingest more than 4,000 mg in any 24-hour period.
Because activated charcoal can interfere with the absorption or metabolism of various nutrients and medications, take it at least two hours after (or before) other products.
For suspected poisonings, consult a poison control center expert before taking activated charcoal. Don’t use activated charcoal at the same time as another common home remedy for poisoning, syrup of ipecac. Charcoal can be used after ipecac has done its job, which is to induce vomiting.
When taken in large doses, activated charcoal can cause black stools, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and vomiting. Consult your doctor if you have any questions.
Avoid activated charcoal if you have any type of bowel obstruction.
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David Edelberg, MD