Activated charcoal has been used for thousands of years to treat various ailments and is still used today, even in medical settings. For example, it can be used to treat drug overdoses or in emergency situations when a suspected toxin has been ingested.
It is also used as an OTC or home remedy for other conditions, such as decreasing gas and bloating, whitening teeth, and curing hangovers.
But does activated charcoal actually work? Are there activated charcoal benefits? Can activated charcoal actually cure hangovers?
Keep reading to find out.
We will cover:
- What Is Activated Charcoal?
- How Does Activated Charcoal Work?
- 6 Activated Charcoal Benefits And Uses
Let’s jump in!
What Is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal is different from charcoal, which is heated in a grill for cooking or for art. It is an odorless, flavorless, black powder that is safe to consume.
Unlike these other forms of raw or unprocessed charcoal, activated charcoal has been treated with oxygen and heated to very high temperatures when doing so.
This oxygenation and heat treatment alters the internal structure, making the charcoal more porous by reducing the size of the pore. Doing so also increases the surface area because there are more openings.
The process yields a fine, black, odorless powder that is sold in powdered form or encapsulated and sold as activated charcoal capsules or pills (you may have heard of the famous charcoal pills for a hangover). It may also be added to food products such as ice cream or used in toothpaste.
How Does Activated Charcoal Work?
The heating and oxygenation process used to form activated charcoal creates a substance that is safe to consume (unlike barbecue charcoal, called briquettes).
In fact, activated charcoal doesn’t actually get absorbed by your gut; rather, it reaches the gut in its unchanged state after you swallow it.
It is thought that activated charcoal works by attracting toxins and gasses in the gut.
The porous texture of the activated charcoal carries a negative charge, which can attract positively-charged toxins, gasses, and other undesirable molecules.
These harmful agents can bind to and then get absorbed into the activated charcoal as they pass over it in the gut.
Then, after the toxins are absorbed, they can be removed by the body through the stool rather than absorbed through the gut, where they would otherwise enter the bloodstream or pass on to other organs like the liver and kidneys.
This is the primary way activated charcoal can effectively decrease flatulence; the excess gas molecules can get absorbed into the charcoal and removed by the body rather than be allowed to build up and remain trapped in the intestines.
6 Activated Charcoal Benefits And Uses
There are several potential health benefits of activated charcoal, though it’s important to note that much of the research is dated at this point or is lacking altogether. Therefore, it’s important to consult your physician to discuss alternatives.
Most importantly, if you suspect an overdose or poison/toxin issue, you should seek medical attention immediately rather than self-administer activated charcoal to remedy the issue.
#1: Activated Charcoal Is Used for Emergency Drug Overdoses
Since the early 1800s, one of the primary uses of activated charcoal has been in its use as an anti-poison emergency treatment.
Research has found that activated charcoal can bind to a variety of drugs, helping remove them from the gut to reduce their absorption and remove them from the body before some of their toxic effects can kick in.
For this reason, activated charcoal is often used to treat drug overdoses (sedatives, aspirin, acetaminophen, antidepressants, etc.) and the accidental ingestion of poisons or other toxic compounds or when toxic doses of otherwise safe drugs, such as caffeine, are consumed.
Some studies have found that it’s potentially possible to decrease the absorption of a drug by up to 74% when 50-100 grams of activated charcoal is taken within 5 minutes of ingesting the drug.
Although most research has found that activated charcoal is most helpful when taken in the first hour and may have limited utility in preventing the toxic effects of drug overdoses after that point, some research has indicated that there can still be activated charcoal benefits after the first hour after drug ingestion.
Activated charcoal can still help the body eliminate the drugs from the body more quickly, even if they have already been mostly or fully absorbed.
Furthermore, in cases where the overdose involves delayed- or extended-release drugs, taking activated charcoal up to four hours after drug consumption can still help minimize absorption.
An administration protocol involving multiple doses given over the course of several hours has been shown to be most effective when treating drug overdoses for particularly toxic drugs.
However, although activated charcoal has been found to be beneficial in treating overdoses from drugs such as dapsone, theophylline, phenobarbital, quinine, carbamazepine, and certain barbiturates and sedatives, its efficacy is not universal for all types of drugs.
For example, despite some claims to the contrary, most research has found that activated charcoal has little effect on preventing alcohol absorption, organic solvents, binding to and removing heavy metals like lead, iron ingestion, acid and/or alkali poisonings, or excessive potassium intake or other inorganic salts.
#2: Activated Charcoal Is Used to Whiten Teeth and Treat Acne
One of the purported activated charcoal benefits is the potential ability to whiten teeth and remove plaque, but there is little evidence to support these claims.
Similarly, although often found in skin care products to reduce acne and dandruff, there is little research to back these claims.
#3: Activated Charcoal Can Decrease Gas and Flatulence
One of the most common uses of activated charcoal is to decrease gas and flatulence.
#4: Activated Charcoal May Reduce Cholesterol Levels
Some older evidence suggests that activated charcoal may reduce cholesterol levels by binding to cholesterol and bile salts that contain cholesterol in your gut. This can decrease the absorption of these molecules, helping reduce serum cholesterol levels.
For example, one small study found that daily ingestion of 4–32 grams of activated charcoal caused a significant reduction in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels in those with hypercholesterolemia in a dose-dependent manner.
Daily doses of 4 grams of activated charcoal reduced cholesterol levels by 29%, while the highest doses decreased levels by up to 41%.
Another old study found that taking activated charcoal capsules daily for 4 weeks decreased LDL cholesterol by 25% and increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol by about 8%.
#5: Activated Charcoal May Improve Kidney Function
Because the kidneys are one of the primary organs that filters waste prior to excretion from the body, animal studies suggest that activated charcoal may support kidney function by decreasing urea and the overall toxic waste load that your kidneys must filter.
Some urea and toxins can bind to the activated charcoal in your gut and get excreted in the stool rather than diffusing through the gut lining into the bloodstream, where they would otherwise have to be processed through the kidneys.
This is one of the activated charcoal benefits that’s particularly helpful for those with chronic kidney disease or other metabolic issues that tend to cause excess strain on the kidneys, such as diabetes.
#6: Activated Charcoal Is Taken for Hangovers
One of the most common at-home uses for activated charcoal pills or caps is to prevent or cure hangovers.
Given the fact that activated charcoal is well-known and well-established to help treat overdoses and bind to and eliminate toxins from the body, it makes sense that people would think to use activated charcoal pills for hangovers, helping the body remove alcohol more quickly from the body.
However, although animal studies have found that taking activated charcoal at the same time or shortly after alcohol ingestion may help reduce blood alcohol concentration, the same has not been found in humans.
One study found that taking 20 grams of activated charcoal within 30 minutes of drinking 88 grams of alcohol did not significantly reduce blood alcohol concentrations.
Furthermore, studies have found that activated charcoal is one of the drugs that does not bind to activated charcoal. This may either be due to the molecular weight or charge of alcohol molecules.
Moreover, alcohol is one of the few substances that is absorbed in the stomach rather than down in the small intestine. From a practical standpoint, this means that alcohol begins to enter the bloodstream very quickly after ingestion, so it would be critical to take activated charcoal either preemptively or concurrently with alcohol to help possibly reduce absorption.
Although there’s probably little harm in taking activated charcoal prior to drinking to possibly attenuate some of the aftereffects and potential hangover, you’ll probably find more success curing a hangover by staying well hydrated, replenishing electrolytes and potentially trying herbal remedies like ginseng or Korean pear juice.
Do you use activated charcoal? How does it work for you? Let us know!
And if you are looking for more information on different supplements or food, you can check out our large variety of nutrition guides here!