Typically made from wood or coal, black charcoal (also known as activated carbon) becomes “activated” in a chemical reaction involving heat and an activating agent, like gas. The resulting structure is covered with pores that help it absorb compounds and usher them out of the body.
What Are the Benefits of Activated Charcoal for Stomach and Digestive Issues?
Activated charcoal works well for removing compounds that are still in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, according to Janelle Louis, a functional medicine practitioner at Focus Integrative Healthcare in Overland Park, Kansas.
“I typically prescribe activated charcoal internally for food poisoning, diarrhea, and any other case of gastrointestinal upset,” she says.
The substance is used often in the case of drug overdoses, and people frequently use it to ease gas and prevent and treat hangovers. But don't assume it will let you drink all of the booze you want, as its role as a hangover cure is poorly studied. (Plus, loading up on alcohol is far from an optimum recovery strategy.)
What's the Best Way to Consume Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal capsules are available, but they can be expensive.
“I typically recommend that [my patients] purchase the powder, mix it in water, and drink it,” Louis says.
Because charcoal soaks up whatever it can and ushers it out of the body, she recommends you refrain from using charcoal for at least 90 minutes before and after taking pharmaceutical medication.
The practitioner also prescribes it as a homemade topical spread (just mix it into water), which allows the activated charcoal's pores to help draw out irritants.
“I recommend it in a poultice alone, or with ground flaxseed to help soothe insect bites or stings and for highly inflamed joints and tissues,” she says. “I typically use one or two parts ground flaxseed and one part activated charcoal, because ground flax has a similar drawing ability to activated charcoal and makes the mixture easier to spread."
If you're taking the activated charcoal orally, start with a small dose to see how your body handles it. Be sure to watch for side effects, as well. When taken by mouth, activated charcoal can turn your tongue or stool black, and occasionally it leads to vomiting or constipation.