Charcoal has been used in modern medicine for over 150 years for the treatment of drug overdoses and poisoning. It works by binding to dangerous substances in the stomach before they get absorbed in the intestine and into the bloodstream. For this reason, charcoal is commonly used in emergency departments because it halts further damage done to the body.
A classic, frequently cited, early demonstration of activated charcoal’s efficacy was the ingestion of a lethal dose of strychnine mixed with charcoal. The simultaneous ingestion of charcoal prevented the negative impact of the strychnine and the researcher, Tovery, didn’t suffer any ill side effects.
For those of you unfamiliar with strychnine poisoning – it is the ingestion of the seeds from the Indian tree Strychnos nux-vomica; the seeds are commonly made into a white crystalline powder and used as bait for pests. It has severe neurological side-effects like muscular spasms, twitches and hypersensitivity to stimuli. Even small amounts can progress to painful convulsions which can eventually lead to respiratory arrest. The muscle spasms it causes are so painful, the muscles tire and the affected person will stop breathing.
Tovery must have been confident that charcoal would save him; I know I wouldn’t take the risk! Then again, that’s confidence in research!
How Charcoal Works
Charcoal is fascinating by the way in which it can prevent poisoning; it binds to drugs/poisons in the gut before they get absorbed into the body. Charcoal in repeated doses can also induce “back diffusion” whereby the drug absorbed into the blood stream is absorbed back into the intestine. The large binding capacity and repeated doses of charcoal create a “drug sink” which binds to the drug, ready to carry it out of the body. Figure 1.1 shows how charcoal binds to a deconjugated drug molecule. Figure 1.2 explains diffusion of a drug with and without charcoal.
Using charcoal for treatment of severe overdoses, including injected intravenous drugs, is a major advancement in clinical toxicology. It is extremely important to understand that while activated charcoal assists in preventing an overdose, you should always consult a physician FIRST if you suspect posioning. Whilst charcoal can bind to most drugs, it has been proven to not bind to all of them so be cautious.
Otherwise, activated charcoal is a handy first aid kit item if you can’t get to a hospital fast!
What else is Activated Charcoal good for?
- It can remove heavy metals from the body like lead and aluminium
- Deodorizes foul smells
- Reduces symptoms of food poisoning as it assists elimination of parasites and bacteria
- Can be used as a toothpaste to whiten teeth and eliminate foul breath as it kills bacteria
- Reduces bloating as it relieves the build up of gas in the intestines
- May assist with preventing hangovers
Besides giving you a little bit of a clean out, charcoal may turn your stools black and cause constipation in large amounts – so make sure you drink lots of water.
Charcoal can also significantly decrease the body’s absorption of nutrients and medications. If you take any form of medication, I would advise strongly against frequent use of charcoal. If you do decide you want to try it, I would recommend to take it two hours either side of a meal/supplement so you don’t affect the absorption of nutrients. Charcoal can also cause abdominal pain or swelling (which is very rare); if this occurs, please consult your healthcare practitioner.
Where to Buy
You can buy activated charcoal in capsules at most pharmacies and health shops. I just empty one capsule into a glass of water and drink it; it’s tasteless and good for your teeth! You can also buy it online from Source Naturals at iHerb. For my fellow Australian’s who have access to a Pressed Juices store, they sell ‘The Black Lemonade’ which utilizes activated coconut charcoal.
I hope you enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed writing it! Let me know your thoughts and if you would like any more information about anything I have written.
Have a lovely weekend everyone!
Love Stace x
*Images sourced from Derlet RW, Albertson TE: Activated charcoal-Past, present and future. West J Med 1986 Oct; 145:493-496