A spoonful of activated charcoal powder sits next to an activated charcoal tab

Activated Charcoal: The Universal Antidote?

People have used activated charcoal for thousands of years, but recently it’s gained popularity due to its alleged health benefits. From whitening teeth to preventing hangovers, it may seem like there isn’t anything this compound can’t do. However, while this product has its uses, there isn’t enough clinical evidence to back up the majority of claims made about it. 

How Does Activated Charcoal Work?

Activated charcoal has a negative electric charge that attracts positively charged compounds, such as toxins or gases, toward it. Once these compounds are close, it acts like a sponge and absorbs them, moving them through your digestive tract so your body can naturally excrete them. However, activated charcoal can’t determine which compounds are supposed to be in your system and which aren’t, meaning it can absorb and remove even beneficial ones such as medications.

Can I Use Activated Charcoal for an Accidental Poisoning? 

In the event of ingestion of a potentially poisonous substance, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 immediately. If the person has trouble breathing, becomes unresponsive, or displays other concerning symptoms, call 911. Don’t try to treat a poisoning or overdose with activated charcoal at home, as the variety you buy in stores is often weaker than the type hospitals use. In the emergency room, a medical professional might mix the activated charcoal into a drink or, if the person is unconscious, deliver it via a feeding tube. 

What Else Can Activated Charcoal Do?  

One of the main uses of activated charcoal is in water filtration. However, the substance is not able to filter certain compounds, such as iron or alcohol. While researchers are studying the following effects, there currently isn’t enough evidence to back up these claims: 

Reduce Gastrointestinal Ailments 

Since activated charcoal is absorbent, people claim it can filter gas trapped in the intestine and even remove the bacteria that causes diarrhea. Therefore, it could potentially result in fewer gastrointestinal pains. Some studies have found it may reduce gas production.

Improve Kidney Function 

The kidney works to filter out toxins and waste from the blood. Some believe that those with chronic kidney disease might benefit from ingesting activated charcoal because it can absorb toxins before they enter the bloodstream. In theory, this would take some of the strain off the kidneys. However, many people who have chronic kidney disease control their symptoms with prescription medications, and activated charcoal might reduce the medication’s effectiveness. 

Whiten Teeth

Using activated charcoal to whiten teeth has become quite the fad because some say it absorbs plaque and other surface-staining compounds, which in turn helps you maintain good overall oral health. Currently, there are no studies that support this claim.

During life-threatening emergencies, call 911 and seek immediate medical attention. You can request the ambulance take you to your nearest CHI St. Luke’s Health emergency room. Remember to always speak with your Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group primary care physician before adding any supplements into your diet. 

Sources:
Healthline | What is Activated Charcoal Good For? Benefits and Uses
EMedicineHealth | Activated Charcoal
Medical News Today | What Are the Benefits of Activated Charcoal?
NCBI | Activated charcoal for acute overdose: a reappraisal.
Poison Control | Activated Charcoal