Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
What Is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal is a popular natural remedy for gas, bloating, detoxification, and hangover prevention, but it can also save a life as a first-aid treatment for poisoning. Although it certainly doesn’t replace emergency medical treatment, taking activated charcoal while waiting for an ambulance can significantly reduce harm from accidentally ingested poison.
“It’s one of those things everybody should have at home and hope you never have to use,” says Chad Larson, NMD, DC, a naturopathic doctor in private practice in Solana Beach, Calif. Mild food poisoning, for example, may not need medical attention, and activated charcoal can help you get over it more quickly and comfortably. But most situations where activated charcoal supplements can help are much less dramatic.
Drink Water When Taking Activated Charcoal
Because activated charcoal binds with nutrients, take it at least an hour before or after any other supplements. Drink at least 8-10 ounces of water with each dose, and drink plenty of water throughout the day. Water is essential to eliminate toxins, and constipation can be a symptom if you don’t drink enough.
How Activated Charcoal Works
Activated charcoal binds with toxins in the stomach and helps them to be eliminated, rather than being absorbed and causing harm. Quite different from charcoal in a grill, supplements are treated to remove chemicals that would be dangerous if swallowed, and the charcoal is “activated.” The activation creates many more internal pores, increasing the surface area to trap substances in the gut by hundreds of times. It can trap drugs, many poisons, environmental toxins, and components of food.
According to research described in the British Medical Journal and other scientific publications, activated charcoal is a better option than stomach pumping in many cases of poisoning. However, there are some substances that it doesn’t absorb, including cyanide and metals such as iron and lithium.
Digestive Relief Using Activated Charcoal
Activated charcoal is used to prevent or relieve gas or bloating. When taken before or right after a meal, it can absorb gas-producing substances in the stomach. A study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that the supplement decreased the amount of gas produced in the colon and reduced bloating and stomach cramps.
For digestive relief, dosage recommendations vary, from 500 mg an hour or so before a meal for prevention, to 1-5 grams after a meal for relief. Individual needs also vary.
Read our Good Digestion Guide for more information on what you can do to improve your digestion.
Using Activated Charcoal for Detoxification
Larson recommends taking activated charcoal periodically during a detoxification program. As toxins are freed up, they will circulate through the body and can cause flu-like symptoms or other discomfort. Activated charcoal absorbs and helps eliminate the toxins. Depending on the length of a detox program, it could be taken after a few days or every couple of weeks.
Detox dosages vary, depending on the situation, and can range from 1-2 grams, 3 times per day, to much higher amounts.
Read our Simple Detox Plan for more information on how you can detoxify.
Preventing Hangovers with Activated Charcoal
The effect of activated charcoal on alcohol has not been widely studied, and there’s conflicting evidence. The supplement did reduce blood alcohol levels when given to dogs along with an alcoholic drink, but not when people took it 30 minutes after a drink. Once in the stomach, alcohol is very rapidly absorbed, so it would make sense to take the charcoal supplement before a drink, rather than some time later.
That said, activated charcoal could reduce hangovers for another reason. Many drinks contain significantly less than 100 percent alcohol and other ingredients, in cocktail mixes or in the alcoholic substance itself, may be problematic. Wine, for example, naturally contains sulfites, which many people don’t tolerate well. The charcoal could reduce hangovers by removing toxins or disagreeable drink ingredients, regardless of whether or not it reduces blood alcohol levels. Anti-hangover dosages have not been studied.
Activated Charcoal and Other Remedies for Food Poisoning
Food poisoning is not fun, to say the least. Vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and dehydration are the classic signs. It’s your body’s way of ridding itself of something you ate that didn’t quite agree with you-usually food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or chemicals. The good news is that some natural home remedies can offer relief-and activated charcoal tops the list. Here are top recommendations from Mark Stengler, NMD, and James F. Balch, MD, coauthors of Prescription for Natural Cures.
Activated charcoal capsules can help to absorb toxins from food poisoning. Charcoal works best when taken in the first stages of food poisoning (when you first realize you have it). Take 3 capsules every two hours for three doses.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) oil
Oregano oil has naturally powerful antimicrobial effects. Take 500 mg of the capsule form four times daily, or as directed on the product label.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
This herb helps to improve diarrhea related to an intestinal infection. Take 1 ml of a tincture or 300 mg in capsule form four times daily.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
A nice cup of peppermint tea can be very soothing, reducing nausea and cramping. Drink a cup of peppermint tea every two hours, or take 1 ml of a tincture or 250 mg in capsule form.
Take a product containing at least 4 billion active organisms two or three times daily. Friendly bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidus help fight intestinal infection.
Ginger is a fantastic home remedy for nausea. Drink a cup of fresh ginger tea, or take 500 mg in capsules or 2 ml of a tincture every two hours.
Activated Charcoal Products
In natural products, activated charcoal may be made from coconut shells or wood. In addition to supplements, it’s an ingredient in some cleansing masks and soaps, as it can absorb bacteria and toxins from the skin. You can also now find it in toothpaste as a teeth whitener.
Bio Nutrition Activated Charcoal
Country Life Activated Charcoal
Nature’s Answer CocoNutz Activated Coconut Charcoal